Book Review — Sebastian & Sons

I just finished reading a copy of TM Krishna’s book Sebastian and Sons - which is primarily the divide, discrimination and the resulting oppression between the people that make the instrument and those that play them.

Notice how I said ‘practice’ - so naturally, this book is about the makers as well the practitioners. Specifically in a system of music that is under-represented by people of castes other than Brahmin, the book brings to light the life of the people that make it - their caste, their socio-economic positioning in the society, and the fact that they have lived in the dark and continue for the most part to live in the dark.

I learn the mrdangam and own one. I did know the instrument had animal skin on either side - specifically that of cow, buffalo and goat - but I did not think beyond that. How convenient for me. I also own other instruments made of skin from lesser animals (like the Kanjira, which is made from the skin of monitor lizard).

Throughout the book is another common denominator - Palghat Mani Iyer. Considered by many as the best of best musicians on the mrdangam, himself a Brahmin, he seems to have had a major role in the writing of many of the rules when it comes to working with the makers and ‘keeping them where they belong’.

This is my first book where I scribbled on the pages, next to a line or paragraph, when I found something of importance or something objectionable. More specifically, I would write something like a ‘?’, or ‘how?’ or ‘what??’ next to something I saw was illogical, weird or reaching. In my opinion, there were a handful of assertions the author made in the book which I thought was reaching.

As I read this book, another theme occurred and recurred. How many mrdangams get made in a year? How many people are involved - directly or indirectly - in either making them or repairing them? Like, if mrdangam making was a formal industry - or even an entire nation - what is the GDP of it? Also, how many people are really invested or interested in reading 350 pages about the making of an instrument?

I also surmise that if the author - or any author - invests this much time and effort in the making of anything - another musical instrument, or any of the million things that relies on sweatshops, specific castes of people working - you will find similar stories of oppression. So, why mrdangam? I am not reducing the mrdangam problem, but the mrdangam problem is but a nanocosm of other caste based problems.

Also, technology is a great equalizer. Why is skin prepped in highly unsanitary, likely unsophisticated environments? Why are people working without taking pee breaks and then blame the job when they get pee related problems? Why are people still grinding stone by hand? It is not because technology cannot solve this problem. I suppose it is because:

  • if technology comes to rescue, the mrdangam-making workforce would significantly expand and the art of making the instrument will be uber-competitive, de-skilled, automated, industrialized - or, all of the above. The artisanal makers won’t have anywhere to go. This is the supply side logic.
  • technology would likely temporarily push up the retail price of the instruments - likely not acceptable to an already-not-so-rich musical profession.
  • more than these two, technology will democratize the process of making, and effectively open-source the closely guarded process of making.

In addition to my monitor-lizard-skin Kanjiras, I also own the Remo synthetic Kanjira. Kanjira-players will like the appeal of this transformation, simplicity and low-maintenance aspects of it, as I surely do. I know some celebrity Kanjira players who brandish the synthetic-skin Kanjira. But I am sure artisanal makers of the original Kanjira will not like to acknowledge or embrace the likes of Remo. There are vegan mrdangams as well - but they are mostly used by students. The day Tier 1 mrdangam artists use these synthetic skins, this animal business and the caste-divide will be a thing of the past. Or so I hope.