Book Review of Sebestain and Sons by T.M. Krishna on

Sebastian and Sons

“Every anecdotal line is identical to what we would hear from a domestic help in a benevolently castiest household. My own house no exception. Employees will tell how they are treated like family members. They would also express gratitude that the employer took care of their children’s education. But we all know that caste remains entrenched and they are never truly family members. Caste is not just a physical obstacle; it limits the relationship, reduces human respect, equality and, above all, results in a ‘forgetting’. It is violent dehumanisation that is not easily overcome.”    — An excerpt from the book

Why I Picked This Book?

I have developed a keen interest in knowing more about the caste system in India. Furthermore how it affects the people who are the victim of it and how its overall effects on the society. Sebastian and Sons is a book about the same, the Mrdangam makers who comes from a specific caste. 

The Book

As the name suggests the book tracks the history of Mrdangam makers of southern states of India primarily. The author does a detailed research in documenting the history of Mrdangam makers, who are largely ignored and forgotten, while the artist who play the instrument takes all the limelight.

Sebastian and Sons tracks the earliest Mrdangam makers, the artists who worked on the wood gave it a shape. It records what efforts and experience are required to procure the wood (usually from Jackfruit tree), and the entire process of how it is converted into the frame of Mrdangam.. What all stages it goes through to finally reach to the artisians who do the the leather work.

The Mrdangam maker, who actually works with the animal hide (cow, goat and buffalo). The entire process of skinning the hide, preparing the skin to be used in the instrument. Once the skin is ready, then the job is to fix and fit it in the Mrdangam, which itself is a skillful job and requires various steps, which is captured in detail.

The author in his search of finding the earliest of the Mrdangam makers and their family, travels Andhra and Kerla apart from tracking them in Chennai and Thanjavur. Research is on ground speaking to the people who are doing the actual work, be it the artisans working on the frame or working on the leather.

The other aspects that the author captures is that how the Mrdanam players, who are usually from upper cast Bhramin families tried to keep themselves away from the dirty work of working with the animal hide and left it for the people from lower castes. Most of the times, keeping the work done by the Mrdangam makers in the backseat and basking in the glory of the fame music produced by the same Mrdangam. The sad part is even the makers do not realise they are also partner in the music that is created by these Mrdangam.

The details provided in the making of the Mrdangam are gut wrenching, the amount of effort and physical work done by the artisans in abysmal conditions will make you feel sick. This brings another facet of people like us who take things for granted and always look at the finished product and never think about what happens in the background. Who are the actual people who are making or creating these products that we are consuming. What are their working conditions? Are they paid as per the work they do? Do they have any post retirement security? and many such other questions that we choose to ignore.

One thing though, you need to keep a note of Tamil words as they come, because there are  quite a few and if you don’t keep a note you might loose track. Also, lot of people are interviewed for this book, so it would be good if you refer to the family chart provided at the end of the book to get an a broad understanding of who the author is speaking about.

The book definitely gives the readers a fresh perspective of looking and appreciating the people who are working in the background to make things easy for the people at the forefront.

About the Author

Thodur Madabusi Krishna is a vocalist in the Karnatik tradition. Uncommon in his rendition of music and original in his interpretation of it, he is at once strong and subtle, manifestly traditional and stunningly innovative.

Krishna is also a prominent public intellectual, writing and speaking on issues of structural inequality and culture. He intervenes musically on current issues, whether it is the deoperationalising of Article 370, the vandalising of a Periyar statue or to save the wetlands. He is the driving force behind the Chennai Kalai Theru Vizha (formerly Urur Olcott Kuppam Vizha) and the Svanubhava initiative. He has been part of inspiring collaborations, such as Chennai Poromboke Paadal, performances with the Jogappas who are traditional transgender musicians, the Karnatik Kattaikuttu that brought together art forms from two ends of the social spectrum, and an enduring poetic partnership with Tamil writer Perumal Murugan.

Our Verdict

Go for it 
– If you are interested in anthropology
– Want to know caste system
– Want to Know about the history of Mrdangam makers
– If you have interest in music and wants to know about the genesis and evolution of Mrdangam

If the above don’t interests you, then you can give it a miss.

Want to read the book? Click on the link below to have your own copy.

Buy Here

A short documentary on the making of Mrdangam made by  Vishruthi Girish.

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