Old cinema aficionados reminisce wistfully about the lip-smacking peach melba at Elphinstone’s Soda Fountain in the Madras of yore. In the days before multiplexes took over, Elphinstone was a popular cinema on Mount Road – the artery that cut across the city, and in and around which were all the major cinemas. In those days, theatres tended to be monolingual. So, Elphinstone, Odeon (Melody) and Midland screened English films, and Gaiety and Chitra Talkies Tamil films.

Situated just off Mount Road, in the multicultural suburb of Triplicane, was Star Theatre, the hub for Hindi films. The home of the Nawab of Arcot, the Wallajah mosque and the Parthasarathy temple, this area has been the symbol of an organic inter-religious living for a few centuries or more. But it has also been vulnerable to communal disturbances. An old resident recalls, “Star Theatre was located in the Muslim-majority area of Triplicane. Some of my Sindhi friends also lived on Wallajah Road. The Hindu area was around Big Street, near the Parthasarathy temple. We had to navigate crowded roads in the area to reach the theatre on Triplicane High Road. It was surrounded by small eateries.”

It is said that the film Madhumati ran in this theatre for more than fifty weeks. I remember that my father, who dabbled in films, was upset he could not acquire distribution rights for it.

These were my associations with the area – and then I discovered that, right opposite Star Theatre, Madras’s most respected mrdangam maker had set up shop.

Until I began asking questions about the Madras tradition of mrdangam-making, no one so much as mentioned his name. Everyone spoke of Parlandu and the Thanjavur family, who only came to Madras in the mid-twentieth century, and not of this man who lived and worked here well before any of them arrived. Perhaps the centrality of Thanjavur in the Karnatik mind had a role to play in this.

This also meant that many of the musicians who lived in the city of Madras were forgotten. After all, mrdangam artists such as Velu Nayakar and Madras Kannan did not receive the recognition that was their due.

Although he is counted among the best mrdangam players of all time, Palani Subramania Pillai’s ascent on the concert ladder may have been slower because he too was not based in Thanjavur. His isai vellalar caste was a big factor, of course. As was the fact that he was left-handed, which gave people an excuse for refusing to share the stage with him.

The presence of a left-hander would require the violinist to switch positions with him. This is necessitated by the fact that the dominant side of the mrdangam needs to face the audience. Pillai’s climb was slow and arduous, and not as fulfilling as a musician of his calibre deserved. CS Murugabhoopathy, a tough and reclusive artist who would not bow before anyone, paid a graver price. Belonging to the servai community of Tamil Nadu’s Sivaganga region, he used to live further south before he made Madras his home.

If Palani’s dreams remained unfulfilled, Murugabhoopathy’s were suppressed. He was undoubtedly a genius, yet he was never given the respect, encomiums or opportunities a brahmin in his place would have naturally received. Not only was Murugabhoopathy from outside the circle, he was also not subservient. When he died in 1998, many did not even know his name.

Until the mrdangam maker C Varadan mentioned it to me, I did not know that Murugabhoopathy had married the politician Muthuramalinga Thevar’s half-sister. In the past four decades, the thevar community has become one of the state’s most powerful political castes, and Muthuramalinga Thevar’s statue that guards Mount Road at the well-known Nandanam junction is a formidable symbol of that power.

Thevars who belong to southern Tamil Nadu and the servais who belong to Sivaganga district occupy a similar social position and status in Tamil Nadu’s caste structure. But all this made no difference in the brahminical circles. Political might does not translate to cultural prominence.

Unsurprisingly then, the already marginalised mrdangam maker is easily forgotten. Much like our mystery maker of Triplicane, Munusami. Before him, his uncle Chandrayya too worked out of Triplicane. Munusami trained under his uncle and, when he was ready, moved into a shop in the same area. He was the mainstay for mrdangam artists in Madras, and also helped those who visited from out of town for a concert.

“Dakshinamurthy Pillai (the legendary percussionist) used to get work done by Chandrayya. He worked on the terrace of a house in Triplicane, and Dakshinamurthy Pillai would sit there with him. For simple work, he would pay Chandrayya Rs 1 and gift him the angavastram or veshti he had received at the previous concert,” said Madras Kannan.

Kannan was the mrdangist on almost all Colombia 78 rpm records, and was a staff artist at All India Radio. He did not belong to a family of musicians nor was he a brahmin. His father, Aadimulam Mudaliar, owned a textile shop in Madras. And for a brief period, in order to develop his business, Mudaliar moved to Burma with his family. But once he noticed musical flair in his son, he decided Madras had to be home. Kannan first came under the tutelage of Peethambara Desai, who lived in the ancient suburb of Triplicane in Madras, and later on learnt from Ramadas Rao in Thanjavur.

His mrdangam tone and style were hugely popular. People were in love with the timbre of his instrument – the credit for which must go to Munusami’s workmanship. A busy man, Munusami had no time for personalised mrdangam care. So, when artists began moving to the metropolis, they had to change their ways. “He was an extraordinary artisan. He worked for me from 1952 to ’54. From Velu Nayakar to Madras Kannan, everyone used to go to him. He would say, ‘leave your instrument here and I will come to it later’,” said TV Gopalakrishnan, who moved away from Munusami because he did not get the attention he sought.

But others accepted the maker’s terms. Umayalpuram Sivaraman would take his mrdangams across on a cycle rickshaw.

By the time Guruvayur Dorai from Kerala met Munusami in 1949-50, the maker was already an old man. He would take a pinch of snuff now and then, and generously offer Dorai some too. Munusami had a discerning ear, and helped younger artists understand the nuances of the mrdangam’s myriad tones as well as the tuning of the instrument with precision. Even with clients who were extremely fussy, Munusami would have the final word.

“Karaikudi Muthu Iyer used to sit with him from 10.30 in the morning until 4 pm. Finally, Munusami would tell him that it was okay now, and would ask him to take the mrdangam as it was and play. Only when Munusami said okay would Karaikudi Muthu Iyer accept it,” Dorai recollects.

Karaikudi Mani, who rose to fame in the 1970s, called Munusami “supremely intelligent”. “Triplicane High Road was a noisy place, yet if you told him you needed an instrument at a certain pitch, he would deliver it perfectly tuned,” he said.

According to Sivaraman, Munusami’s brother Keshavulu was a tambura artist at All India Radio. But Varadan said that the brother’s name was Ethirajan, and he played the tambura at the Madras Music College and assisted his brother in the shop. As far as I could tell, Munusami was Telugu-speaking. The name could be Tamil or Telugu, but since his uncle and teacher was Chandrayya, it is likely that they were Telugu-speaking.

Madras had a large Telugu population, many living in the northern parts of the city, while others, particularly the economically upwardly mobile, went on to occupy interior suburbs. Nothing more is known about Munusami or his brother. Nobody knows what happened to them, when he passed away, and what his children are doing. Unfortunately, there is nowhere to look, but it seems clear that no one in the next generation took to mrdangam-making.

Excerpted with permission from Sebastian & Sons: A Brief History Of Mrdangam Makers, TM Krishna, Context.