A recent article in The Friday Times of Pakistan lamented the plight of tabla makers of Peshawar, who faced extinction because of tabla being considered ‘haram’ by Islamic conservatives. Mrdangam, on the other hand, is considered sacred in South India and its makers are nowhere near extinction. They are in fact thriving. But their domain is isolated, rarely frequented by the artists who use their products. Krishna sets out to explore it in Sebastian & Sons: A Brief History of Mrdangam Makers.
The mrdangam, a percussion instrument, is a cylindrical two-faced drum, with a hollow resonating chamber made of jackfruit wood, its sides covered with layers of cured cow, buffalo and goat hides. Its users are almost all Brahmins, while an overwhelming majority of its makers are Dalits. Krishna visits them, observes their work keenly and tells us in detail the technicalities involved in making a good mrdangam. If the warp of Krishna’s weave is the reminiscences of the makers and their families, the weft is the tales told by the users. The resultant fabric is arrestingly bright, but uneven and rough on touch in places. The author’s meandering style engages our attention till the very end. Though the title says it is a brief history of Mrdangam makers, it is really about the relationship between the makers and the artists. Curiously, many of the makers who speak are still with us, but its main artists either long gone or dodderingly old.