Inside the world of mridangam makers

Johnson Kennedy catches me staring at his palms — rough, ashy sores on the sides, hardened from years of working with wood and rope. “You can be sure one is a mridangam maker if he has these scars,” he responds, with a smile.

Also read: An excerpt from 'Sebastian & Sons'

He belongs to one of the oldest and largest families of mridangam makers from Thanjavur, whose journey is the binding narrative thread that Carnatic music vocalist TM Krishna has chosen for his just-released book, Sebastian & Sons (Context - Westland Publications).

The book is an exploration of both the aesthetic craft of mridangam making, and the social exclusion of craftsman from the music. Over the four years that he worked on Sebastian & Sons, TM Krishna spoke to makers from Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh.

“We were looking to release a fresh edition of my 2013 book, A Southern Music. In it, there was a chapter on caste discrimination but no mention of the instrument makers,” he says, adding, “I started typing out a paragraph on the makers to be added, but realised quickly that this has to be a book in itself. It is far more complicated and needs its own voice, not mine.”

Inside the world of mridangam makers

Following in the author’s footsteps in Chennai, we head to Appaswamy Street in Mylapore, to meet Johnson Kennedy, grandson of Sebastian, one of the earliest recorded mridangam makers.

It is after Pongal, and sales have seen a dip from the productive Margazhi season. Yet, when we meet Johnson, he is with a customer, putting the final touches to a mridangam. Cradling the instrument between his legs, he applies a black paste to the left head, rotates it bit by bit, and at every turn, slaps it to check the tone. “This will increase the bass,” he informs us.

Mridangam 101
  • The percussive instrument is cylindrical, and made of jackfruit wood. The frame is curved, and narrowed towards the ends by a lathe machine.
  • The dominant circular membranes are made of cow hide, and in the middle, goat hide braided together. On the goat skin is a paste of black rice and puranakittan stone. The other membrane is made of buffalo and goat hide.
  • The membranes are tightened together with the help of nylon ropes (it was leather earlier) running along the entire length.
  • It is the specific nature of the hide that makes it difficult to industrialise the process. “Each animal’s skin differs. A female that has delivered twice is preferred, for better stretchability,” says Krishna.

In the summer months, it takes about four days to make a mridangam. But in the winter months, when demand is high, it stretches up to a week. “The leather for both heads has to be wetted and takes a longer time to dry in winter, because of the rains. It will stink if we use it before drying,” he says.

Working with skin — cow, buffalo, goat — is inextricable to the making of a mridangam, and the reason for the makers’ social exclusion. From acquiring skins for the membranes, to sourcing wood, curing the material and putting it together, it is a highly nuanced operation. “Translating the musician’s abstract ideas into the corporeal reality of a mrdangam requires a highly tuned ear. Yet the makers’ contribution to the art of the mrdangam is dismissed as labour and repair — when it is spoken of at all,” writes Krishna in his book.

Inside the world of mridangam makers

Every maker needs to have a good sense of music, to understand the needs of the musician. And yet, “nobody from the community of mridangam makers has gone into making music. Those who have tried their hand, have also fallen back to making the instrument,” says Krishna. They will be relegated to playing devotional music, church music, koothu, but don’t have the opportunity to learn Carnatic.

“I cannot play a Carnatic song, obviously,” says Johnson, “But I like playing movie songs from the 1960s at some gatherings. Even if I want to learn, I can’t because my hands are worn out.”

Not everyone works with skin, and so players depend on the makers, giving them some power back. However, this very fact keeps them in the job.

Binding ties

Right at the beginning of Mathala Narayana Street, two shops nestle beside each other. One is a veena repair shop, the other in a blue brighter than the sky, is Varadan’s mridangam repair shop.

The shop is older than Varadan; he joined the tutelage of his uncle, KM Venkatesan, a respected mridangam manufacturer, at the age of 11. He was brought from Tiruvallur to learn the trade, and considers himself a Madras native. Now 70, he comes to this shop everyday from his residence in Aynavaram — despite business being slow. “There was a time my uncle was the only major manufacturer in Chennai,” he says. But now, according to Johnson, there are at least 25 shops in Chennai, “of which five belong to me”.

Inside the world of mridangam makers

This stronghold by the Thanjavur makers, especially Antony and his sons, has not gone unnoticed. In his book, Krishna touches upon the professional competition between the different families of makers, a grudging respect and sometimes — mutual disdain. But what binds them all is a love for the instrument, and the experience of being marginalised.

Johnson recognises this business as their family identity, but admits it is not easy. “No one was willing to marry me for a long time. Everyone thought this was a menial job.” He talks about how house owners refuse to rent their spaces for this business, because it involves skin work. “You are here with me for the past hour, were you able to smell anything bad?” he asks us, in angst.

At Varadan’s shop, the walls are covered with photos of his uncle and him next to famous mridangam players. “Thanjavur Murugaboopathi, Vellore Ramabhadran, Trichy Sankaran...,” he enunciates their names like chants. “These are vidwans. But it is only if we make the instrument properly that they get the fame and awards.” Artistes have treated them with respect, he insists. But later he lets on, “Respect is nice, but it is not a pension.”

And so, steering away from his father’s business, Varadan’s son has found himself a job in the Electricity Board. After 75 years of existence, the iconic shop may shut down in a year or two.

Sebastian & Sons will be launched by historian Rajmohan Gandhi  and VCK leader Thol. Thirumavalavan at Kalakshetra Foundation on February 2, 6.45 pm.

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Printable version | Nov 27, 2020 11:19:06 AM |

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