Sebastian & Sons is the intriguing title of a book on the brief history of mrdangam makers. The striking photograph of Madurai Ratnam, Sebastian’s first cousin, adorns the cover. When Krishna was asked who Sebastian was, he responded: ‘Sebastian was the oldest mrdangam maker traceable. According to me, every other mrdangam maker is the son of Sebastian, and hence, Sebastian & Sons.’
For lovers of Carnatic music, embedded in gods and temples of Hinduism, Sebastian & Sons jolts the reader to cross lines and examine music’s hidden layers of assumptions of caste and religion. It introduces us to composite, multiple feelings and skills needed before the mrdangam is born to create its music.
The release was sensational, boycotted by players, predominantly Brahmins. ‘It is he (mrdangam maker) who holds the skin with his feet and stretches it on the mrdangam. The instrument that touched his feet is kept in the singer’s puja room and revered, but the maker is not even allowed inside the same house. That is the disparity,’ said Thirumalavan, of the Viduthalai Chiruthigal Katchi (VCK). The mrdangam concert exists in a sanitized world; smells of animal hide are banished into invisibility. Leather is vital to sound.
Ironically, the Kalakshetra Foundation, famous for its reform withdrew permission for the book launch at the last-minute alleging ‘controversial issues’, and ‘political overtones’ of the book.
The book traces the fascinating process of the craft, art and genius of men who make the subtle sounds of the mrdangam possible. It is a story of the unequal relationship between makers and musicians, and of men who remain anonymous in the history of the mrdangam in performance.
Some parts of the history of western classical music have a different story. Antonio Stradivari lent his name to the Stradivarius, a much-coveted violin, the possession of which often marks the stature of the classical violinist. In classical Carnatic music, the maker of instruments is invisible, often marked with social stigma and in comparative poverty.