As a singer, writer and activist T.M. Krishna realized that nobody was talking about billangam makers, he knew that he had failed too. In his first book, which dealt with caste in carnatic music, he had neither explored the world of doers nor the doer-player dynamics. The mrdangam, a drum with two faces, is the primary percussion instrument used in carnatic music concerts and Bharatanatyam performances, he writes in his new book: Sebastian & Sons: A Brief History of Billangam Makers. The body of the mrdangam is a hollow, resonating chamber made from the wood of jackfruit trees, and its two tapered ends are covered with layers of cow, buffalo and goat skin. There is a dark history of caste discrimination and other trifles. A section:
There is a general belief around the world, and even among many Indians, that Hindus do not eat beef. However, there are indications that beef was eaten considerably in the Vedic period and later, even among Brahmins. Many Hindus continue to eat beef, especially in the Dalit communities, but are not limited to them. India is also one of the five largest beef exporters in the world. That the cow is an unspeakable sacred animal is a modern Brahmin concept that is not necessarily shared by the larger population. But the Brahmin castes, which had an overwhelming influence on politics and the building of cultural norms compared to their population size, have established this falsehood as a sacred universe so that it has found a place in the constitution of India. Although this provision is only included in the policy principles, which means that it cannot be enforced by any court, the cow is still particularly mentioned. And over the years, many state governments have passed laws that prohibit or regulate the slaughter of cows.
Palghat Mani Iyer was born into a traditional Brahmin family in Palakkad and went through a period of controversy with a contradiction: an instrument that required the killing of three animals – especially the sacred cow – was his life. Although Iyer believed that the mrdangam was a vedavadyam (a Vedic instrument), he wondered if it was right to kill a cow to build it. In search of self-reconciliation, he decided to approach Kanchi Mutt's Shankaracharya. But Iyer hesitated: wasn't it inappropriate to ask the Pope such a question? Unsure, he decided to speak to C. Rajagopalachari, whom Mahatma Gandhi called his guardian of conscience, instead. Through friends he reached Rajagopalachari and asked him this question.
Rajaji, as he was called, gave him a pragmatic answer by quoting a saying: "Don't look for the source of a river or the ancestor of a saint". In other words, he asked Mani Iyer not to look for difficult answers. How practical! It is the creator who plays the role of a mediator for the artist, who conceals the origins and allows the latter to seek comfort in such a saying.
The cow is removed from the artist's field of vision. Since the killing and skinning occurs outside of his or her circle of existence, he can pretend that it does not. The Creator stands on the threshold, keeps the cow and the Brahmin separate and helps them to maintain their "purity". The manufacturer is therefore of crucial importance for the player, but his role also keeps the manufacturer "dirty" and unequal. As soon as the blood is removed, the skin is cleaned and cut into shape, dried and finally brought to the artist. It has been transformed into a resource by the work of the makers, a lifeless ingredient. For Ravikumar, the creator, the skin itself has life; one to which no negativity is bound because Shruti brings it to life. But he either did not acknowledge or did not consider it appropriate to speak the hard truth: that it is the Creator – he and others like him – who gives life to the skin after death. I had to intervene and remind him.
In any case, the makers don't miss the irony, even if the players don't see it. A manufacturer said to me: “We are talking about goats and cows. Most artists are Brahmins. They don't like the smell and know nothing about how we process the skin. But the instrument will be in her pooja room. This respect is not given to the makers. Another said, "When I work on the mrdangam, I use my legs to hold it. But you take the same billionangam into your room and worship it. "(Of course, the legs and feet are another source of ritual pollution in the Brahmin worldview.)
In order to maintain a flawless image, artists have to distance themselves and their audience from these realities. The conservative Sabhas audience must not even smell the slaughterhouse.
There could have been a trigger for the existential crisis that Mani Iyer was facing. Alkattan, Parlandus [who ruled the mrdangam making industry] Cousin, was considered an expert in the selection of skins and made very good varus. I haven't been able to determine exactly how alkattan is related to Parlandu. In such situations, the English generality cousin always comes to the rescue. Iyer gave Alkattan a job. He said he wanted top-draw cowhide, didn't compromise, and the cost didn't matter. Alkattan said it would cost Rs. 100. Iyer gave him this amount immediately in advance and went to a restaurant around 3 or 4 p.m. When he came back he found Alkattan in front of his house, a cow in tow. Iyer was startled, to say the least. Alkattan informed him that this cow had great skin, but the seller wanted Rs. So he wanted to speak to Iyer before completing the transaction. Iyer was shocked. It would almost certainly have been the first time that he had had to make a decision about the slaughter himself and take responsibility for something that was previously hidden. He simply shooed away alkattan and asked him to take the cow with him. This incident from Iyer's life is a universal condition – I am sure that no mrdangam artist wants to be put in a similar situation. The skin falls from the sky as far as it is concerned.
Both Mani Iyer and Palani Subramania Pillai really tried to understand how skins are chosen by the makers. They were still only looking at the skin that had been disinfected by the manufacturer, but they had started buying larger amounts of processed skin for storage in their billions of rooms. Of course, all of this arose only from the need for a special and specific sound – an obsession with the instrument.
Excerpted with permission from Context / Westland. The book will be published by Rajmohan Gandhi and Thol Thirumavalavan on February 2, 2020 in Kalakshetra, Chennai