Johnson Kennedy catches me staring at the palms of his hands – rough, ashen wounds on the sides, hardened by years of working with wood and rope. "You can be sure that if you have these scars, you're a Mridangam maker," he replies with a smile.
He belongs to one of the oldest and largest families of Mridangam makers from Thanjavur, whose journey is the binding narrative thread that the Carnatic music singer TM Krishna chose for his recently published book. Sebastian & Sons (Context – Westland Publications).
The book is an exploration of both the aesthetic art of Mridangam making and the social exclusion of the artisan from music. In the four years that he worked Sebastian & Sons, TM Krishna spoke to creators from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.
"We wanted to launch a new edition of my 2013 book A southern music, There was a chapter on box discrimination, but no mention of instrument makers. "He added:" I started writing a paragraph about the manufacturers to add, but quickly realized that this must be a book in itself. It is much more complicated and needs its own voice, not mine. "
Following the author's footsteps in Chennai, we head to Appaswamy Street in Mylapore to meet Johnson Kennedy, the grandson of Sebastian, one of the earliest known Mridangam manufacturers.
It is after Pongal and sales have seen a drop from the Margazhi productive season. But when we meet Johnson, he is with a customer and puts the finishing touches on a mridangam. He weighs the instrument between his legs, applies a black paste to his left head, turns it piece by piece, and strikes it every time to check the tone. "That increases the bass," he informs us.
- The percussion instrument is cylindrical and made of jackfruit wood. The frame is curved and is narrowed towards the ends by a lathe.
- The predominant circular membranes consist of cowhide and in the middle of goat leather, which are braided together. On the goat skin is a paste of black rice and puranakittan Stone. The other membrane consists of buffalo and goat skin.
- The membranes are pulled together using nylon ropes (formerly leather) that run the entire length.
- It is the specific nature of the skin that makes it difficult to industrialize the process. "The skin of every animal is different. A woman who has given birth twice is preferred for reasons of better elasticity," says Krishna.
It takes about four days to make a mridangam in the summer months. But in the winter months, when the demand is high, it lasts up to a week. “The leather for both heads has to be moistened and dries longer in winter due to the rain. It'll stink if we use it before drying, ”he says.
Working with the skin – cow, buffalo, goat – is inextricably linked to the production of a Mridangam and the reason for the social exclusion of the makers. From the procurement of skins for the membranes to the procurement of wood and the hardening of the material to the assembly, this is an extremely nuanced operation. “In order to translate the musician's abstract ideas into the physical reality of an mrdangam, a highly tuned ear is required. However, the contribution of the makers to the art of mrdangam is dismissed as work and repair – if there is any mention of it, ”Krishna wrote in his book.
Every maker must have a good feel for music in order to understand the needs of the musician. And yet: “No one in the Mridangam community made music. Those who made an effort fell back on making the instrument, ”says Krishna. You are banished to playing devotional music, church music, Koothu, but I have no opportunity to learn Carnatic.
"Of course I can't play a Carnatic song," says Johnson. Even if I want to study, I can't because my hands are worn out. "
Not everyone works with skin, so the players are dependent on the makers and give them some strength. However, this fact keeps her in the job.
Right at the beginning of Mathala Narayana Street there are two shops next to each other. One is a Veena workshop, the other in a blue that is lighter than the sky. It is Varadan's Mridangam workshop.
The store is older than Varadan; At the age of eleven he joined the education of his uncle KM Venkatesan, a respected manufacturer of Mridangam. At the age of 70, he came to this business from his home in Aynavaram every day – although business was slow. "There was a time when my uncle was the only major manufacturer in Chennai," he says. According to Johnson, there are at least 25 stores in Chennai, "five of which are mine."
This stronghold of the Thanjavur makers, especially Antony and his sons, has not gone unnoticed. In his book, Krishna deals with the professional competition between the various families of manufacturers, reluctant respect and sometimes mutual contempt. But what unites them all is their love of the instrument and the experience of being marginalized.
Johnson recognizes this business as her family identity, but admits that it is not easy. "Nobody was willing to marry me for a long time. Everyone thought it was a secondary job. “He talks about how homeowners refuse to rent their premises for this business because it is skin work. "You have been here with me for the last hour, could you smell something bad?" He asks us anxiously.
In Varadan's store, photos of his uncle and him alongside famous Mridangam players can be seen on the walls. "Thanjavur Murugaboopathi, Vellore Ramabhadran, Trichy Sankaran …", he says their names like chants. "These are Vidwans. But only if we get the instrument right will they become famous and distinguished. "Artists treated them with respect," he emphasizes. But later he says, "respect is nice, but it's not a pension."
And so Varadan's son, who turns away from his father's business, found a job in the electricity agency. After 75 years, the cult shop can be closed in a year or two.
Sebastian & Sons is created by historian Rajmohan Gandhi and VCK leader Thol. Thirumavalavan in the Kalakshetra Foundation on February 2, 6:45 p.m.