Your first book, A Southern Music, had a chapter on caste. Your latest one, Sebastian and Sons (Context), puts under the spotlight the lives of the mrdangam makers, mostly Dalits, who make the instrument using animal hides, among other materials. What made you choose the topic?
The first book is like a meditation on the idea of music and of form, in which caste also comes in the role of a societal frame. In the chapter where I navigated caste, I had not included any instrument makers at all. When I was going through the book for its second and third editions, I realised that I knew nothing about the makers of the mrdangam. I had seen some of them and met them once in a while. My colleagues would sometimes speak of them, but I knew nothing about their history. That’s when I thought of exploring the story of the mrdangam makers and the whole process of making this instrument from scratch.
You’ve also changed the names of many mrdangam makers in the book. That was your decision and not that of the makers. Why change the names?
I changed the names when I felt that the quotes were sensitive. If you notice, I have also not named some mrdangam players in case the quotes were too direct. In case of the makers, I felt that he/she should not be exposed to any kind of backlash. Nobody told me not to use their names but I have the privilege to handle the backlash, they don’t. I felt that it was respectful to protect them.
The description of the butchery at the slaughterhouse is chronicled in great detail. Does the reason for that rest in the idea of how musicians do not engage with the truths of the maker’s life? The slaughter and the animal is completely removed from the musician’s life.
There is a whole separation of the process and the making of the instrument. The animal needs to be killed, the skin peeled out, cleaned — that’s not even in our frame. If I wanted to write about the mrdangam makers, it was essential that I began from where the skin originates. And that’s from the animal. It all starts in gore and blood. And it also challenges this whole notion of purity associated with Carnatic music. I felt the need to describe that because it was a very powerful experience for me. It was transformational. This whole thing about purity, impurity, dirty, pristine — it’s very important for us to grapple with this because both exist together. So there is no notion of purity or impurity which is actually real. Othering somebody using that notion is very disturbing, especially when we come from privilege, including caste privilege.
The makers are very particular about the water the animals drink and the portion of the skin that’s used. The science behind the making of the instrument is incredible. How much did you know of it before you began working on the book?
It was astounding knowledge for me. What kind of animal is to be used, what kind has a better tone — the makers will look at an animal and assess these things, especially if they are making mrdangams for professional musicians. They will tell you that the sound of the mrdangam lies in the skin. They won’t take the skin of just any cow, goat or buffalo slaughtered for meat. Mrdangam makers know the nature of the skin that they want and it’s all very scientific.
The genius of the mrdangam maker isn’t valued as it should be. The musician is held in higher esteem. How do you explain it?
Instrument making in this country is taken to be an activity where someone just puts things together. The notion that music lies with the musician is so entrenched in our heads that what it challenges is our idea of knowledge. What is the process of knowledge creation? Is it a non-societal, intellectual activity or is the society deciding what’s knowledge and what’s not? What is art and what’s craft? How much of it is actually constructed by social hierarchy? That’s what we need to think about. How much does society devalue mrdangam making? And how much of it is because of what goes into its making or who is making it? No mrdangam player will ever be asked the question if he can create a mrdangam. I have never asked a mrdangam player if he can make a mrdangam, even in a casual conversation, but I have always asked a maker if he can play. Even fundamentally what I did in my interview tells you how I am also so ingrained with some of these notions.
During the interviews, were the mrdangam makers comfortable discussing caste with you? A mrdangam maker’s statement — ‘Those days they kept us away and discriminated; today they keep us close and discriminate’ — is difficult to forget.
That line, I think is, the most profound description of discrimination. In large sections of privileged societies, liberal or otherwise, there is this notion of seeing discrimination only in terms of overt actions — forcing someone to not go in the temple or giving someone a different glass to drink water in. We don’t do that anymore. But just because I share a cup of tea at a dhaba does not make me a person who is not casteist.
My caste was always something that was challenging. I am automatically respected and seen as a person of value. It was very important for me to go beyond that. But I cannot run away from the fact that I am still a Brahmin with artistic privilege. It is a difficult negotiation. Ideally, this book should be written by a mrdangam maker. The most important thing here was making sure that they trusted me, my intentions. Sometimes, it took longer to ask difficult questions, sometimes it was easier. It depended on the individual and the rapport that I could establish with them.
Kalakshetra recently decided to call off your book launch, citing the possibility of instigating ‘political and social disharmony’. What happened?
I have not spoken to anyone from Kalakshetra, but it seems from their letter that it was a newspaper excerpt carried in a leading daily that triggered it. The excerpt had a passage about the cow and how mrdangam player Mani Iyer was trying to negotiate that. I thought the excerpt was quite interesting because here is a man who believes in a religion where the cow is worshipped and who also knows that the cow skin is used for his mrdangam. He is struggling with these two things and seeking an answer. It’s beautiful. As for Kalakshetra, I do think that the present political climate has a role to play in how people are reacting.
You’ve been open about your political views through your music and your writings. You performed recently at Shaheen Bagh, where women have been protesting against the CAA and the proposed NRC. Can art help in political situations?
That’s too big a question to answer. I don’t know if it can help. I find it very difficult to separate the artiste from the activist. If you look at it, creating art is an act of activism. Any art is automatically a part of the democratic process of asking questions. Questions bring together the individual and the larger world. Activist today has almost become like a title, like a CEO or a CFO. It’s ridiculous. Any citizen is an activist. It is not a portfolio. If you don’t get caught in that trap, then all of us by just being democratic, will be activists.
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