Chennai: A book by Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna on the the Dalit Christian makers of the mrdangam, a percussion instrument key to a Carnatic performance, has triggered a controversy in Tamil Nadu, with the Kalakshetra Foundation, which functions under the Union Ministry of Culture, cancelling permission for the venue of its release.
The arts and cultural academy is chaired by former chief election commissioner N. Gopalaswami, who is also the president of RSS-affiliated Vivekananda Educational Society that runs schools in Chennai.
The Kalakshetra decision was prompted after an excerpt of the book, Sebastian & Sons: A Brief History of Mrdangam Makers, appeared in The Hindu.
The excerpt points out that the percussion instrument is made of cow, buffalo and goat hide, and that the performers, predominantly Brahmin, are shielded from the manufacturing process that involves cow slaughter.
“The cow is removed from the artist’s sight. Since the killing and skinning happen beyond his circle of existence, he can act as if it does not happen,” reads the excerpt titled Keeping the cow and brahmin apart. “The maker stands at the threshold, keeping the cow and the brahmin apart, helping the latter maintain his ‘purity’.”
In a letter to the Westland Publication, the publisher, the Kalakshetra has said the excerpt contains “certain statements relating to the book which touch controversial issues and certainly have a lot of political overtones”.
Kalakshetra director Revathi Ravichandran’s letter further mentions that the organisation “cannot allow any programme that may instigate political, cultural and social disharmony”.
The book will now be released at the Asian College of Journalism (ACJ) campus Sunday.
Decision slammed in the state
The Kalakshetra decision has drawn condemnation in the state.
Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (VCK) chief and Lok Sabha MP Thol Thirumavalavan, who will release the book Sunday, tweeted that the “Kalakshetra humiliates not just T.M. Krishna but Dalits too”.
Kalashektra humiliates not just T.M.Krishna but Dalits too.
T.M.Krishna’s book has nothing controversial, but throws light on what exist in the society.#Thiruma #Thirumavalavan #TMkrishna pic.twitter.com/6VlrQwajQq
— Thol. Thirumavalavan (@thirumaofficial) January 30, 2020
Senior Congress leader P. Chidambaram termed the decision shameful. He tweeted urging people to come in large numbers for the book launch and “to stand up against the institutional capture (of Kalakshetra)”.
This is an opportunity to stand up against institutional capture (of Kalakshetra). Urge book and music lovers to gather in large numbers at the Asian College of Journalism.
— P. Chidambaram (@PChidambaram_IN) January 30, 2020
Tami Nadu Congress working president Mohan Kumaramangalam also condemned the decision. “You can’t expect to turn the mirror around on a society that doesn’t want to be reminded of how ugly it is,” he tweeted.
— Mohan Kumaramangalam மோகன் குமாரமங்கலம் (@MKumaramangalam) January 30, 2020
Krishna’s book also reveals stark discrimination of Dalit Christians, who manufacture the instrument, and the mrdangam maestros who are predominantly Brahmin.
One instance has Selvaraj, a mrdangam maker, state that he never ate with legendary mrdangam maestro Palghat Mani Iyer for whom he made the instruments. “I did not eat with him. In Madras, when Mani Iyer stayed at the Woodlands Hotel, I used to eat his leftovers. He knew that and would keep some for me,” the book quotes Selvaraj as having said.
In response to the controversy, Mani Iyer’s grandson Ramprasad accused T.M. Krishna of not conveying intent while collecting information from the family.
In a Facebook post, he wrote, “The incidents in the article involving my grandfather are factually correct — however, none of my family members would have agreed to divulge upon information relating to him, had they known that the true intent was to use facts and manipulate them to bash a specific community…None of us would want any of our family members’ name, least of all Mani Iyer, whom we all revere, to be associated with political and caste-based agenda.”
Krishna has stood by the contents of his book. “Everybody knows instruments like the mrdangam can’t be made without a cow being slaughtered. People who enjoy the sound from a mrdangam refuse to acknowledge how the instrument is being made,” he told Deccan Herald. “The book has been written to chronicle the lives of those unsung heroes who should get the due credit for the sound that comes out of mrdangam.”
“I think we talk about caste only in terms of economy and scholarship, but we need to engage with it in culture, art and learning,” he told HuffPost earlier this week. “This is a classic case where caste diminishes, even negates, knowledge.”