That Kalakshetra’s cancellation of singer TM Krishna’s book launch exemplified the deep-rooted caste system in our society, was the overriding viewpoint of noted personalities who gathered for the release of the book on mrdangam makers at another venue in Chennai on Sunday.
Krishna’s book Sebastian and Sons: A brief history of Mrdangam Makers was initially planned to be released at an event at the iconic Kalakshetra Foundation in Chennai.
The book traces the history of not only mrdangam making but also the lives of the instrument makers which remains shrouded in oblivion.
Treading sensitively, it brings out the ingrained casteism in the journey of mrdangam making till mrdangam playing. It talks unabashedly about how mrdangam makers who predominantly belong to the Dalit community, do the dirty job of skinning cows and goats to make the instrument but face discrimination by the singers and artistes who are mostly Brahmins.
“It is he (mrdangam maker) who holds the skin by his feet and stretches it on the mrdangam. The instrument that touched his feet is kept in the singer’s puja room and revered, but the maker is not even allowed inside the same house. That is the disparity,” said Thirumalavan, leader of Dalit party Viduthalai Chiruthigal Katchi (VCK).
The Kalakshetra Foundation withdrew permission for the book launch at the last minute on January 30, saying the book contained a lot of ‘controversial issues and political overtones’ which they were unaware of initially.
This led to a serious backlash from literati and the music fraternity. Incidentally, Kalakshetra is an autonomous organisation under the Union Ministry of Culture.
Artistes who slammed the ban said the organisation was irked by the reference to cow skin.
“Withdrawal of permission at Kalakshetra is proof that the varna system and Manudharma are still deeply rooted in our society,” said the VCK leader.
“They (Kalakshetra), by shutting the door on such a pioneering book, have in turn opened many doors and made this launch the talk of the town,” said Rajmohan Gandhi, author and grandson of Mahatma Gandhi.
Adding to this Thirumalavan said Krishna always drew controversy and punned: “When they denied permission and Krishna needed help, Ram came and saved him,” referring to N Ram, publisher of The Hindu newspaper, who came up with the offer of the new launch venue, the MS Subbulakshmi auditorium at the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ) campus.
Besides Gandhi, Thirumavalavan and N Ram, former Union finance minister P Chidambaram and other prominent persons were present at the venue, which was overflowing beyond capacity as some even were seen standing in the lawn viewing the live screening of the launch.
The book release started off with a scintillating recital of O Rangasayee in Khamboji raga, with the highlight of the percussion instruments through ‘thaniya varthanam’ (a brief solo takeover by the instrumentalist) as the vocals took a backseat.
Fifty mrdangam makers, who were accounted in the book, were honoured at the event, with Krishna felicitating them and referring to them as ‘Periya thala’ (big boss) affectionately.
“Everyone is wondering why Krishna invited me (a Dalit leader) to the event. I really don’t know. Maybe, it is because we speak in the same voice for the same cause at different platforms,” said Thirumavalavan when asked about his invitation to the event.
Later, journalist Kavitha Muralidharan moderated a panel discussion on mrdangam makers and caste, during which Krishna told the gathering that his voice was heard across different sections of the society because he enjoyed the privileges of the Brahminical status.
“I am able to be the bridge because I am privileged. I have to be careful writing about such topics because I am privileged. So I don’t really know when a person with privilege can go back or take discourse,” he said.
Krishna, who took over four years to trace the lives of six generations of mrdangam makers from Thanjavur to north coastal Andhra Pradesh, said he was instigated to go on this discovery because he knew a lot about Carnatic singers and players but nothing about instrument makers.
Earlier, he had even told The Federal that the book will make a lot of people uncomfortable since it addresses a sensitive subject of sociological complexity between the mrdangam maker and the player, a Dalit and a Brahmin.
To satiate the curiosity of all on “Who was Sebastian?” Krishna told the gathering that Sebastian was the oldest mrdangam maker traceable.
“According to me, every other mrdangam maker is the son of Sebastian, and hence, Sebastian and Sons.”
Federal Exclusive | TM Krishna on caste, communalism, art and free speech