To Carnatic vocalist and activist T M Krishna, music, culture and classicism are hardly the pure and rarefied realms they pretend to be. In his books and speeches, he exposes how discriminatory art can be, its seamy and exploitative underside and the way it excludes certain people, not just by denying them their creative due but, worse, taking away their basic human dignity — for instance, the woeful lives of mridangam makers, who skin dead cows to make these finetuned musical instruments, and how the percussion maestros of south India wouldn’t miss a beat if enlightened about it.
After Chennai-based Kalakshetra Foundation decided to withdraw permission for the official book launch of Krishna’s latest book ‘Sebastian and Sons: A Brief History of Mridangam Makers’, saying it would “instigate political, cultural and social disharmony”, the book was released in Thiruvananthapuram on Friday.
In an interview with TOI, Krishna clarified that all he sought was “an engagement with ideas” and spoke on the ‘gaps’, veritable contradictions that make us human. As he poignantly says, “If you ask Perumal Murugan, he will tell you how people love their goats and still consume them”.
What prompted you to explore the lives of mridangam makers and the caste realities in Carnatic music?
When I wrote my first book about south Indian music, I did not speak about instrument makers. I did not speak about how marginalised they are in this world of music. We don’t speak about people who make the instruments, they always remain hidden.
I wanted to understand the lives and history of mridangam makers. When we come to caste, it’s real and we all practice it. We have it here just like gender discrimination.
How challenging was your research and gathering of information from mridangam makers and artists?
It took four years meeting people in different places like Chennai, Thanjavur, Madurai, Palakkad, Mangaluru etc. I travelled to all these places and interviewed 42-43 makers and about 10-12 artists.
It was a big effort and the book turned out to be completely different from anything I have written before.
Does the current crop of Carnatic music artists and enthusiasts exhibit a caste pattern? Is there an upper caste dominance?
Caste pattern is a social norm, and we have it in our whole society. How can you not expect art to have caste patterns? What we consider as Indian culture, especially nowadays, seems to be upper caste culture. So, you will see the caste patterns which are there in our society in every art form. You can’t expect them not to have it. We as a society are casteists.
The classical worlds across the globe are fundamentally discriminative — whether it’s Hindustani or Carnatic music or western classical music — in their own structures. In the West it could be white music, and here it’s upper caste music. There’s also an ingrained sense of whether a person belongs. You need to be in a certain way to belong here.
There’s this whole environment of pushing out a person who doesn’t belong. The environment is emotional, psychological and aesthetic, and it’s done very unconsciously.
Is there any reform movement in Carnatic music that aims at bridging the gap and making it more inclusive?
It will take time and a lot of efforts. I am trying to do my bit, and many others too are working in this sphere. I think changes can be brought into. I wish the way mridangam makers are looked at will change, that they will be respected, and their work would get the due respect.
You talk about beef-eating in the Vedic period, including among brahmins, and on your visits to abattoirs, you watched killing and skinning of cows and other animals…
People have to read the book. I have made no controversial remarks. Whatever I have said is real. For making mridangam, you need cow skin. That’s a reality, and people who are playing mridangam are mostly brahmins. So, this dichotomy exists —between your belief in the community and the need for cow skin. It’s an important thing for us to think about. Isn’t that what art should do or writers should do? To speak about facts and raise different ideas and perceptions for different scenarios. I just see this as an engagement with these ideas.
Most importantly the book is not about beef-eating or cow slaughter. It’s about mridangam makers, who work really hard to get the right skin, cut and bind it together. This book is a celebration of their work. I wrote about them, those who do the killing and skinning every day. Does it make them evil people? Can I judge that they are insensitive to animals? If you ask Perumal Murugan, he will tell you how people love their goats and how they consume them. Human beings exist in that gap where you can’t reconcile. How do you negotiate that? What’s the emotion there? At the slaughterhouses, there was blood everywhere. But that was something very normal. I never felt disgusted and I did not feel bad.
DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.