Stepping into TM Krishna’s new book feels like stepping outside one of Mylapore’s hallowed concert halls through a small, rickety exit gate behind the reverberating stage – and then attempting to reconcile the complex human chaos of Chennai’s streets with the complexity of the music being made inside. As we walk with the author through the bylanes of Nanganallur in search of a living master maker of the mrdangam, or along Keethukara Street in Thanjavur looking for the blue front door of the greatest of the old master makers, long dead, we become invested in the act of walking.

We walk away, for a little while, from music that promises to transcend and allow ourselves, instead, to descend into the corporeality of our own walking bodies – bodies that consist of straining muscles just like those of a maker pulling at a varu-rope with all his might, and of living skin like that of the cow about to be slaughtered for the hide that the maker’s wizardry will transform into a rich source of musical tone.

These are walks of atonement – Sebastian & Sons is an unabashed exploration of the workings of caste discrimination through a case study of the mrdangam, the percussion instrument that is fundamental to Carnatik classical music. The twelve chapters of the book take us from the origins of the modern mrdangam in Thanjavur to its establishment in Chennai, the capital city of Carnatik classical music; from detailed, illustrated accounts of the skin-work, woodwork and stone-work that go into the making of the mrdangam to debates about tonal purity and aesthetic superiority; from alternative stories of makers from Andhra Pradesh and Kerala to the alterity of the few women makers in the business – and the spectre of caste inhabits each of these accounts, adamantly, every step of the way.

Empathy and scepticism

In spite of this, the author does not come across as a cynic. TM Krishna leads us through the fascinating world of mrdangam makers with a sense of genuine interest in their personal stories and delight in every aspect of their craft. These are stories that unravel for us the complex web of social situations that lie beneath the relationships between master musicians (usually Brahmins) and master craftsmen (many of them Dalit Christians) of the mrdangam.

There is, for instance, the story of the master maker who refuses to leave the funeral pyre of the musician who was his patron, in spite of having been through a lifetime of socially normalised exploitation at the hands of that very patron; or the near comical story of an iconic musician in search of the best possible skin for his mrdangam and his shock at being introduced to the living cow that the maker brings to his door for his approval.

There are stories of gender here too, of the wives of the musicians maintaining a sense of apartheid even when the players themselves are forced to transgress caste boundaries because of their aesthetic, emotional and pragmatic needs; or of the women in the makers’ families who only contribute to “appropriate” parts of the making process and are considered an anomaly if they participate in skin related work.

In tempering its empathy for the plight of the makers with a healthy dose of scepticism, in saying that “caste [is] presented as a concrete wall when it actually operates like a wicket gate”, Sebastian & Sons saves itself from becoming either a bland apology or an indiscriminate surgical strike. Instead, it opens up the possibility of rich, nuanced discourse on one of the most urgent issues that Indian society continues to grapple with.

But it does this with an ironic sense of relish, by painting a vibrant picture of the diversity between and, importantly, within the genders, families, castes, classes, religions, languages, cultures and geographies that come together to make up the melting-pot world of the mrdangam – a world as rich in social texture as a mrdangam made by the master Parlandu might be in its sound.

Undoing a stereotype

It is in fact sound - naadam - that drives the makers and players of the mrdangam to exert their physical bodies in pursuit of it. As Krishna describes in minute, enthralling detail the entire process through which bodies (of animals and trees) are transformed into other bodies (mrdangams) by bodies (of the makers) to be played on by other bodies still (musicians), it is possible that his readers, especially those who are practising classical musicians, might accuse him of giving too much importance to the corporeal production of sound, while ignoring the structural complexity that Carnatik music is so admired for, and that is solely the domain of the musician.

There exists in the worlds of the classical musics of India (Carnatik as well as Hindustani) a curious, persistent tension between abstract, intellectual musical structure and physical, sensual musical sound. This tension is often a subtle, bidirectional apartheid where musicians invested in the pursuit of structural beauty are accused of lacking direct emotional appeal while their accusers, those invested in the production of beautiful sound, are accused of not being “knowledgeable”, of displaying “a lack of toughness, or of depth in their musicality”.

It is hardly surprising then that mrdangam makers, Dalits who deal with raw material and raw sound, have not traditionally been considered custodians of valuable knowledge. This book undoes this bourgeoisie stereotyping of knowledge by recycling the concept so that it describes embodied, physical knowledge – heightened aural ability, dexterity and the intuition embedded in the craftsman’s body – and rejects the “entrenched hierarchy of knowledge and skill that flows from India’s caste system”.

Work of optimism

There is just such a captivating physicality in Krishna’s writing as well. There is no attempt here to couch difficult situations in difficult language. Instead, Krishna’s literary aesthetic consists simply of allowing the extensive fieldwork that has gone into this book to speak for itself. Complete with beautiful line drawings of every stage of the making process, together with idiosyncratic descriptions of it using the everyday jargon, even the myth and the lore of the makers, Sebastian & Sons is a feast of for anyone even remotely curious about the wonders of musical instrument craftsmanship. There are photographs and family trees that humanise the entire process and even a map depicting the shops of Chennai’s makers that makes you want to put the book down and begin walking!

A work such as this also encourages us, especially the practicing musicians among us, to reevaluate our understanding of the aesthetics of our practice. It reminds us that traditional ideas of beauty, whether they come to us from our ustads in the oral tradition or from the shastras in the textual tradition, are still products of human endeavour and have therefore been and continue to be shaped by ideas of caste, class and gender.

Formulating a universal, prescriptive aesthetics for classical music is a project that a large number of people – from the greatest sangeet-shastris to the most apathetic doctoral scholar – have attempted. Krishna’s larger ongoing project of problematising such universalism by conflating social and political contexts with aesthetics, of making aesthetics contextual and descriptive, is then a very welcome endeavour.

Like all of Krishna’s work, this book is not borne of a misplaced, contrived rebellion. It is, instead, borne of an immense love for the art and the craft of this genre of music, a genuine passion that causes him to applaud its greatnesses while also addressing its weaknesses, like a well-intentioned member of an illustrious but inevitably human, fallible family. This is not a work of distant condescension – Krishna never fails to acknowledge his own position of social privilege, his own unavoidable complicity in the social hierarchy within which he functions.

Instead, Sebastian & Sons is a work of optimism that seeks to embrace the diversity of the tradition and to lay bare the traps of homogenisation and deification that continue to threaten it. One hopes that this book will function as a catalyst that encourages more scholarship and unearths more stories, personal histories and alternative perspectives. Our traditions and, importantly, our relationships with them will be the richer for it.

Sebastian & Sons

Sebastian & Sons: A Brief History Of Mrdangam Makers, TM Krishna, Context.