(An edited version of this book review was first published in Business Standard.)
“Dalits, Bahujans, and Adivasis have so far been the only ones to raise the issue of caste. Just because we bear the brunt of the violence of this system it does not mean it is only our problem. Caste is, in fact, a structural problem. Therefore, it needs structural solutions that are grounded in collective and inclusive actions to dismantle it,” write Thenmozhi Soundararajan and Sinthujan Varatharajah in a seminal essay titled ‘Caste Privilege 101: A Primer for the Privileged’ (2015).
The former is a Dalit-American transmedia artist, journalist and theorist. The latter is a Dalit Tamil scholar, artist and activist. Their essay emphasizes the responsibility that savarna or ‘upper caste’ people must take by naming and owning their privilege instead of making vacuous statements about how they do not believe in caste. This involves confronting bigotry in families, workplaces and social networks. Who wants to do that when maintaining the status quo brings material rewards?
Their essay offers a useful framework to read T M Krishna’s new book Sebastian & Sons: A Brief History of Mrdangam Makers (2020), published by Context, an imprint of Westland Publications. Apart from achieving global recognition for his contributions as a Tamil Brahmin vocalist in the Karnatik classical tradition, Krishna received the 2016 Ramon Magsaysay Award for his “forceful commitment as artist and advocate to art’s power to heal India’s deep social divisions, breaking barriers of caste and class to unleash what music has to offer not just for some but for all.”
How does this commitment translate into the book? Krishna gives readers an intimate view of how caste-based discrimination thrives in the world of Karnatik music. He is particularly interested in the stories of “distinguished mrdangam makers, many of them Dalits”. These artists who make “a cylindrical two-faced drum, the primary percussion instrument used in Karnatik music performances and Bharatanatyam recitals” have been denied their place in history and continue to “remain on the fringes of the Karnatik community.” Krishna hopes to right this wrong with a book built on personal interviews, archival material and self-reflection.
The labour of mrdangam makers is indispensable for mrdangam players. However, it is not given the respect it deserves because their work involves handling cow skin, goat skin and buffalo skin, which are used in making the instrument. Krishna does a remarkable job of showing how Brahminical ideas of purity and pollution deem certain occupations as inherently superior to others, therefore mrdangam players are able to maintain a high moral ground even as they use instruments made of animal hide while the mrdangam makers who select the animal and fashion the skin into an instrument bear the brunt of being called “dirty, uncouth and dangerous.”
Due to his social location, Krishna is familiar with these discriminatory practices that ensure concentration of power in the hands of Brahmins. As the book jacket mentions, “From acquiring the skins for the circular membranes and straps to sourcing the wood for the drum, curing the material, the final construction, and at the end of it all, making sure that it has the required pitch and tone, mrdangam-making is a highly nuanced operation at every stage.” Despite their knowledge, skill and training, these mrdangam makers are eventually short-changed because of the position assigned to them in a highly stratified society.
Sebastian & Sons is filled with anecdotes about several personalities, their idiosyncrasies and hardships, but two men stand out in Krishna’s narrative — Parlandu and Palghat Mani Iyer. The latter found fame not only because of his musical talent but also due to his caste identity as a Brahmin. The former, a Dalit Christian, was the second of mdrangam maker Sebastian’s three sons who ruled the mrdangam-making industry but his contributions had to be pieced together since Dalit histories are often erased in the hallowed portals of Karnatik music, which are dominated by Brahmins.
The author lives in Alwarpet, a Brahmin stronghold within the larger Mylapore area in Chennai. His book provides a trenchant critique of how the city is organized around caste clusters, and admits that his caste privilege is deeply connected to where he lives. “As far as popular imagination goes, tradition, history and culture are all found in this tiny locality. But there are thousands who do not fit this pretty picture, living in tiny homes and housing board flats abutting the polluted Buckingham Canal, which cuts through the heart of Mylapore — completely invisible in plain sight,” he writes.
Recognizing caste privilege is a journey of self-awareness to understand one’s own complicity in systemic violence; a journey not many savarna people are willing to go on because it would shake the ground beneath their feet. Krishna admits that he wondered if it was ethical to pose sensitive questions while interviewing people who do not share his caste privilege. He also became uncomfortable when “there was no hoo-hah about his arrival” and he found himself “seeking recognition and legitimacy.”
Although Krishna wanted to write a book about the unsung Dalit Christian mridangam makers, he could not shake off his Brahminical conditioning. He says, “I assumed that, while experientially the makers knew what they were doing, they did not possess the knowledge to understand chemical changes. I needed a Harvard scientist to validate what they were talking about. It was necessary evidence of my inability to understand knowledge that has a different operating system from the one I grew up with.”
These candid reflections make the book worth reading. Unfortunately, Krishna makes no reference to academic scholarship produced by Dalits even though he attempts to “bring together socio-politics, aesthetics, chemistry, biology, acoustics, engineering and physics.” Dalits are reduced to being ‘native informants’ — a term anthropologists use for people who translate their culture for the researcher, who is an outsider — while the author, a Brahmin, reinforces his position as the knowledge producer. Who benefits in terms of speaking platforms, writing opportunities and social justice credentials?