T.M. Krishna investigates the history of the mridangam (a two-headed drum played in Carnatic music of southern India) and meets the invisible keepers of highly-nuanced mridangam making traditions. While several artists have been credited with the evolution of the instrument, none of them had knowledge of a fundamental aspect of the making: hide. The quality of the hide and how it is cured, cut, stretched, bound and braided impacts the tone, timbre and sound of the instrument. This requires a highly tuned ear and an ability to translate abstract ideas expressed by musicians into the corporeal reality of a mridangam. Sebastian & Sons explores the world of these artists, many of them from Dalit Christian communities, their history, lore and lived experience to arrive at a more organic and holistic understanding of the mridangam.
Sebastian & Sons is available on Amazon (in print and Kindle formats) and Audible. Due to the length of the book, all participants are encouraged to focus on the Chapter “The Madras Makers.” For those who are unable to read the book, we recommend this short film on mridangam makers in Bangalore “Adi Tala” by Adithyaa Sadashiv. To further understand the history of Chennai as described in the book, T.M. Krishna has also produced a YouTube series called “The Artiste” on Tamil traditional artists in Chennai.
About the series: Skin Deep: Caste Politics and Percussion in South India
Between the worlds of classical Carnatic music and the popular kuthu folk music, there are clear distinctions in the ways that the South Asian caste system - derived from the Hindu varnā hierarchy and enforced through Hindu legal codes such as the Manusmriti - shapes access to and success across South Indian (and, indeed, all South Asian) artistic spaces. Where Brahmins and other dominator-caste groups are afforded near-exclusive ownership of classical and religious musical spaces, kalavantulu and isai vellalar (hereditary performing artists) and Dalit communities are rarely credited for birthing and preserving the unique musical practices that define South Indian artistic spaces. These politics of performance are carried over to the diaspora where predominantly dominant-caste performers in the United States engage with Carnatic repertoires created largely by dominant-caste, Hindu men.
The second season of our Social Justice Series is therefore dedicated to identifying caste dynamics and inequalities in music, specifically as they manifest in South Indian percussion traditions. From the mridangam in Carnatic music to the parai drum in folk traditions, caste-oppressed communities possess the unique expertise needed to procure, tan, and construct drum membranes from animal hides. The systemic inequities that these drum-makers and drummers have experienced is largely overshadowed by dominant-caste performers’ appropriation from and erasure of their efforts. In this season, we center not only the ways oppressed-caste communities have contributed to Carnatic music but, significantly, the ways that their unique folk percussion traditions give rise to intersectional Dalit feminist liberation movements.
Due to the embedded and still very present nature of casteism in both South Asian and diaspora artistic communities, we strongly encourage all participants in our events to self-educate on the origins of and continuing legacies of the caste system:
The Social Justice Series is curated by Program Lead, Amita Vempati. Amita pivoted to the world of community arts and advocacy having worked on education and human rights initiatives in South Asia, Central Asia, and Eastern Europe. Having trained in Carnatic, Hindustani, and many other global musical traditions, she uses both political and artistic insights to examine how art can be a force for critical self-reflection and change.