‘Sebastian and Sons’ by TM Krishna: Invisible Makers of Music
By PS NISSIM
We’ve all seen those classical music shows: the voice, the tabla, the sitar in the spotlight, the player lost in the performance, the accompanists embellishing the rhythm. Lost from view, however, are the efforts of many others that contributed to the moment. In his book Sebastian and Sons, TM Krishna shines a light on the talented but largely ignored makers of the mrdangam, the drum that’s an essential part of every Carnatic music performance.Krishna has a ringside view to the Carnatic music scene, being a vocalist himself. In his previous book, A Southern Music, he has explored the history and aesthetic of the genre in depth. However, as he says here, he missed talking about the all-important makers of the instruments. The present book walks us through this vast, hidden world.
We begin with the titular Sevittian (aka, Sebastian), the patriarch of a family in Tanjavur that is considered one of the best in mrdangam makers. Although the mrdangam is a staple of performances today, its current form is relatively new. Sevittian’s father Arogyam—early 20th century—is considered one of the creators of the instrument in its present form. The book explains how the work is extremely intricate and labour- and skill-intensive. Succeeding generations of the family have spent their lives on the instrument, and as time has gone by, they have migrated to Chennai to serve more customers.
We then read about another school of mrdangam-making that stems from Andhra Pradesh, who are in a silent competition with the Tanjavur family to prove themselves the best. From there, Krishna takes us further to linked communities—those that craft the wooden shells of the mrdangams, and then the skin workers themselves. At every stage, he shows us the amount of work and craft that goes into the making—even if the workers themselves are conditioned to downplay it in their demonstrations.
Although Arogyam and his family perfected the crafting of the instrument, it was the players that took away the credit. Krishna’s heartfelt argument is that the caste system, which pervades the world of Carnatic music, is the base of this discrimination. Most performers are Brahmins, expecting respect both through their caste and their art. On the other end of the spectrum, most instrument makers (especially those that involve animal skins), are Dalit Christians, who are never given their due. They work for a pittance, and their art and effort are trivialised in favour of upper caste musicians. Neither the artists nor the makers have really pushed hard against this unfair system.
The way the makers worked did not help get them their due credit. Generally they were connected to the whims and tastes of the player, coming to his house to receive instructions, doing small repairs in the backyard (never inside the player’s home), and taking back larger tasks to their own, often smaller homes in poorer colonies. Often a maker would exclusively create instruments for one player alone through his career, picking up and delivering instruments at the player’s house—sometimes even travelling with him to tune and repair the instruments during tours.
In at least that one aspect, modern society has favoured the makers. After moving to Chennai, the newer generation of makers preferred to have a dedicated shop for making and selling mrdangams, where the players could come. This gave the makers more self-respect, though social attitudes are yet to change in the players’ community. Also, larger schools for music, and the increasing market for the instruments have given the makers more money and self-respect for the first time. There is still a long way to go.Sebastian and Sons is an eye-opening look at the hidden world of Carnatic music, and at the complex hierarchies therein that overshadow talent. One hopes that the Carnatic world will acknowledge its Stradivarius, its Steinway or its Gibson.
Courtesy : The New Indian Express