Posted in Books

Sebastian & Sons – TM Krishna

First of all before I go into review let me caution:

I am not at all musical, music though brings me peace in whichever form: carnatic vocal or instrumental, bhajan or even filmy songs. Partial to latino foot-tapping beats hahaha! So I am hardly fit to review this masterpiece of TMK but as I have loads of time in my hands and I really want to review this book, I am doing just that here.

Anyway I keep playing music all 24 hours that when my hubby returns home from work, the moment I open the door when he presses the calling bell he tells me, ‘down the shutters of your Nair tea kadai please!’ so that’s how my playing music the whole day is viewed by my workaholic worst half who relaxes with Ilayaraja music. I think keeping open the Nair tea kadai is qualification enough for me to review this gem of a book (although prescisely it is this caste prejudice TMK is resisting)!

Lots of emotion and personal perspectives mixed in any review of mine.


A woman/housewife/mother, many view me as sort of rebel but I found the best in the town in TMK. So very grounded, oozing with knowledge in and out, expert in his chosen vocation (vocal carnatic), his compassion for fellow humans and anguish at the apathy of the society for the inhuman ways some of us are treated initially took me by surprise (given his birth privilege). I haven’t identified empathy as one of the chief characteristic traits of most of my countrymen. I guess Hindu gene is defunct of this DNA. Not that I am unaware of the author’s past history. In such an young age, he has carved a niche for himself not only in the carnatic music world but also in social work (and media). I came across his posts in Twitter years back when I was there to read interesting tweets. Then I closed my account and lost touch.

But TMK, there is no need to self-deprecate yourself as you have done in the book. You are good enough. You don’t have to prove anything to anyone. Turning into a meat eater, denying this sense of repulsion in abattoir and confessing to not being moved by the death of a maker of Mrdangam, were not necessary. Unscientific? Says who? You surprise me with your forced meat option that I find frivolous. It is perfectly okay to feel squeamish in the literally bloody environ. You don’t have to become one of your subjects to talk or write about them. You can stay who you are, what you are without a compromise. Or do you think, only by embracing meat eating habits will you sound convincing.

I believe, the tormented atma of the killed cattle/goat still gets trapped in their skins that we use in leatherware. Same holds true of silk. A Jain friend told me. Then what is the use of being a vegetarian from birth. Given your background, I can’t believe you didn’t bat an eyelid when the animal went under the butcher’s knife in the abattoir. This is my only peeve against you. But in a way you seem to agree, with the atma staying residual in the leather skin. You wonder whether the animal comes to life through the vibrations/beats from the mridangam in a musical way.

Your talk of keratin and collagen really got me though! Makes me kind of sad. This lingo I am familiar with from my salon visits. To associate the terminology with butchered animal is shocking. The javvu you are talking about must be gelatin under the skin.

I am neither a voracious writer or reader, I am mostly into fictions even then. Rarely go for non-fictions. But I guess this time I picked gold. Local authors are always a delight. Their proficiency makes me proud that a son/daughter of the soil is coming up with something so very substantial. In case of your book, I guess this is one of a kind. That’s what made me go for it. With my layman acumen, I can still certify that this material could be thesis subject for PhD. What an in-depth on-field research and analysis, hands-on approach and complete know-how. I particularly loved your prose. Such a simple styling with effective use of language. No effort to glamorize your text with superlatives or hollow jingoism. Where is the need for such a window-dressing. Nothing cliched. Stark naked reality. So neat and precise and honest and profound from heart. Honesty. This kind of intellectual honesty is rare even in seasoned authors (in my half-baked knowledge).

I learned quite about Mrdangam, my favourite native percussion instrument. I have been like a blank sheet until now. Tabla and Tavil come close second. To mention that the book is informative is such an understatement. It is an encyclopedia not only on Mrdangam making but also on the makers of the most sacred percussion instrument of Hindus. Valandhalai, Toppi, Varu, Ul Sattai, Veli Sattai, Pinnal, Sadam, Kottu hahaha … various Thattu…. Never imagined so much complexities went into making this divine instrument that finds pride of place in Hindu temples and festivities. The skin part is common knowledge but the kind of expertise and manual work that goes into creation of the instrument really came like a bolt out of the blue. Never prepared for this bit of info. The wooden body of the Mridangam is a craft as well. The semi-mechanised process of turning out the shell is well illustrated. I did lose my way though through the maze of pull-heave-tug part of bringing the toppi and valandhalai together with the Kattai. When I emerged out, I felt dizzy but could appreciate what a fine work of art Mrdangam indeed is. The search for Kittankallu seems like an adventure. Your sense of humour comes through when you say the sadam part resembles idli with its concavity! Dig at the nightie being south Indian leissure wear is another point scored! Reference to C V Raman was punctuated with the erasure of the creator of the experimental mrdangam from the scene. This is what I would term ‘vaazhai pazhathla oosi etharadhu’ in your language.

I have a point to add here. The lingo lapses to chaste Tamil when it comes to Mrdangam terminology naturally. Is there a way this can be made adaptable to international readers. This can be a dampener to even other state readers. I am reading you on Kindle. I went through the glossary in the end. This list will not do. The book will go places and may be contending for serious national and international awards. While the local vocab may make it sound very realistic, too much of its usage without apt/spot translations can dispirit interested readers. But I have to give it to the author for making the work standout with this kind of vernacular approach, not trying to anglicize the book for wider audience. The tamil terms seem to reaffirm the solid and indisputable authenticity and nativity of the very instrument Mrdangam. My recommendation: go for a 100% Tamil edition. It will benefit even the makers on whose behalf you have taken up the cudgels. The reach will be up to grassroots level.

Neither have I given thought to the resonance of Mrdangam. I never knew the toppi part was reserved only for bass effect but after reading about it, it all rushes back to me from various concerts I have watched over years. Music to me is sweet pastime nothing more. More like an addiction. I have loved Drums Sivamani hahaha in the past! Hereafter NOOOOO !!! (Fine-tuning of the percussion instrument is no cakewalk as I get it now. Once again a thorough learning process when it comes to the nuances of the bass-beat-stroke emanating from the traditional percussion instrument that has evolved over decades to its present form. The finesse of a master’s stroke is the outcome of dozens of variables and components, permutations and combinations as you have shown.

There is a little confusion over how the author goes back and forth with the Thanjavur family tree names and the Madras Muttu makers. Establishing characters in mind and relating to them exactly is proving difficult. Then I spaced out reading the book so that I would remember everyone. Finally still I resigned to the fact of losing track and settled for mere identification with Thanjavur family by names. Parlandu and Selvaraj and Melgies and Antony and Soosainathan are like Rajni and Kamal to me now 😀 However, I don’t find such an instant kinship when it comes to the shell makers such as Somu Asari. The skin workers are the ones who move me. To me they seem to be doing the actual work.

You could have added one more index detailing Mrdangam parts for the benefit of those who have no inkling on the subject. The local Tamils who are on familiar terrain may get along. However, non Tamil/international readers can do with a good illustration of Mridangam with parts neatly earmarked. I didn’t find one such in the Kindle edition. Let me recheck.

Having been born and brought up in Mylapore, I was shocked to learn there are still avenues that I never knew existed! Appar samy kovil street for one. It is in the northern end of Mylapore so I may have missed much about it (i have known it), coming from southern Mylapore closer to Mandaveli. Plus I was put off by your spelling for my fave deity of Mylapore. She is Mundagakanni Amma, please correct it in your next edition.

Neither have I given thought to those living in the fringes. May be being on the spot gives you access to something not visible to most of the general janata. Still, unless you have a big, big heart and sheer will to go about it, you just can’t be doing it. What it takes to think the way you did, pour down your heartfelt thoughts into words and bind everything into this volume – i feel difficult to imagine. I am lost for words. Caste buried the dignity of labour sadly. Its one of the cruelest offences that can be committed by humanity – this denial of dignity and respect to fellow humans. No apologies can mend it in a 1000 years.

Kudos to the author for bringing to light the extensive and backbreaking backend work that is never known to the outside world. Commendable. Where credit is due, it has to be accorded. We cannot snatch others’ glory just like that trivializing their contribution to anything majestic as mrdangam. Such a shame! This story needs to be told, no doubt. Someone has to do it, and it is puzzling why none took the initiative until now. The human aspect of the any good work needs to be not only recorded to posterity but also be retold and appreciated. The glaring insensitivity in some of us is deplorable.

But the reason for such a work not making it to public sphere so far is guessable. This is greasy work. Not many have appetite for what the author has managed to pile forth. Standing ovation for the meticulous research and untiring efforts and zeal and enthusiasm to tell the story in the first place. How did such an idea even germinate ??? What an inspiring read! At times, your simple but profound words that pack truth brought tears to my eyes. Like how you relate the makers shrugging off mistreatment, taking disrespect in their stride. When dignity is stamped over for generations with such a brutality and souls get tired and bruised, this has to happen right? Passive aggression. This can be killing.

The gender bias is covered nicely with the Kappi and Kuchchi distinction. News to me again but no surprise. Mridangam has held forte in entire south. The Vizhianagaram, Bangalore and Peruvemba angles open fresh vistas that might otherwise have remained unknown to most of us. The snide gender remarks are there from bank jobs to stage kutcheries. Kerala work being neat is on expected lines as well. Same holds for enterprising Keralite women.

But TMK must have ruffled the feathers of some stalwart mrdangists who may or may not be around. Naming and shaming somehow I am never comfortable with. I agree there is no shaming but naming is damaging enough. I concede there is no other way out. Still, one has to be real brave to mention names. The book might not be going down well with everyone connected to Carnatic. You threw caution to the winds TMK! I am proud of you yet concerned at what you have done to yourself. You are already an outcast. No bother I know. Still.

But you did go on to highlight the geniuses of the mrdangam artists if that can count as any solace for them. Hope Palghat Mani Iyer and Palani Subramanya Pillai are not turning in their graves! You have brought to life Parlandu in such a vivid manner that I want to go see him and shake his hands!

It is interesting to read anyway about generations of musicians of Tamil Nadu. How the music culture was cultivated and bred. No surprises about Thanjavur being the epicenter of classical carnatic. Spellbound by the intricate details and versatility of the carnatic music. I wish there had been no collateral damage when it came to Carnatic achieving this supreme greatness in world music arena though. After viewing You tube uploads of the author, I can understand why he is up in arms against classical status conferred to carnatic. To him social justice about EVERYTHING matters. Street art is equally worthy and appreciable which I can’t deny. I loved TMK’s Narayanaguru renditions and the Ashoka inscriptions being brought to life with carnatic. A contribution to society like none other. One of a kind. Road less traveled. TMK seems to back up his genius authoring with real life music.

Was there so much casteism in Mylapore. I am not sure on this. I agree the middle level non brahminical communities were the worst perpetrators and practitioners of divisiveness among us. Even in present times, who is committing honour killings in Tamil Nadu. In friends’ circle they call me ‘lady kamalahasan (actually I don’t see eye to eye with Kamal at all in many issues) so I have toned down a lot of my usual rhetoric. One reason for leaving Twitter is that. As a woman, i found that it is easy to be threatened. (Now I think I have a new ‘naam ke vaaste’ kind of twitter account).

To hold your pen and author such a heart-tugging tale, you have to be blessed and gifted … is all I can say. At the end of the day I am just a housewife with too much free time in my hands, what else. My words may mean nothing to you. Never has someone left such an impact on the way I think. I guess I have been somewhat right all along when it comes to certain social issues.

I look forward to reading more of this author.

Salvation truly lies in this. How many will agree with me. This book is true Nirvana with its sincere attempt to restore dignity to those who are denied that, and respect and credit to truly where this may be overdue.


PS: Where is that villa in Goa 😀