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Who Does the River Embrace?

Thoughts on Sarvam Thaala Mayam

Sumana Chandrashekar ( is a ghatam player, Carnatic vocalist, nemophilist, and programme lead at the India Foundation for the Arts, with particular interest in migration stories of music, people, objects, and animals.

Sarvam Thaala Mayam is a film that brings the question of caste to the centre of scholarship and practice of Carnatic music.

There has been a small oeuvre of films in South Indian cinema that are themed on classical music and dance. While some, such as Tyagayya (Telugu, 1946), Hamsageethe (The swan song; Kannada, 1975) and Swathi Thirunal (Malayalam, 1987) have been biographical, others such as Shankarabharanam (Telugu, 1980),  Ananda Bhairavi (Kannada/Telugu, 1983), Malaya Marutha (Mountain breeze; Kannada, 1986) and Swathi Kiranam (Dawn of light; Telugu, 1992), have variously talked about notions of purity, politics of caste, gender, power, identity and hierarchy that are embedded in the teaching–learning and performance structures of the classical arts. The latest addition to this set of films is Sarvam Thaala Mayam (STM) (Omnipresence of rhythm; Tamil/Telugu, 2019).

STM is set in the vibrant Carnatic music context of Chennai and is inspired by the lives of mridangam maestro Umayalpuram Sivaraman and mridangam maker Thanjavur Johnson, and the warm relationship they share. This is just the starting point. From there, the film takes a leap into fiction where Johnson’s son, Peter, the protagonist aspires to become a mridangam player. This aspiration germinates instantly after Peter witnesses mridangam master Vembu Iyer playing at a concert. This is possibly Peter’s first close encounter with Carnatic music, that too inside a sabha. Peter is determined to learn the mridangam from Iyer, for whom his father Johnson also makes mridangams. This brings the intense orthodoxy of the Brahmin guru and the passion and aspirations of the Dalit boy into conflict with each other. The conflict is somewhat resolved when the guru takes him in as his student despite severe opposition from his senior students. However, this relationship becomes strained when Peter is framed for the transgressions of Nandu, a fellow student. The final resolution comes when Peter wins over Nandu in a music contest and the guru accepts Peter as the “heir” to his musical legacy.

The various facets of the guru–shishya (teacher–student) relationship have been closely examined even earlier in films like Shankarabharanam and Swathi Kiranam. However, the particularity of STM is that it boldly brings into this relationship the dimension of caste. Director Rajiv Menon might insist that the film is not primarily about caste. But, anybody who is aware of how deeply casteist and exclusive the present-day Carnatic system is, will hardly miss it. The nationalist period in India wrested classical music and dance traditions in South India from the devadasi community and placed its ownership almost entirely in the hands of the upper caste.

Since then, Carnatic music has steadily become a Brahmin stronghold where access to learning, listening, and performing has largely stayed within the community. In such a social context, the boy from “Ambedkar Colony” aspiring to learn and perform in the citadels of Carnatic music is in itself a radical statement. Peter’s father Johnson, too, as a young man, had nurtured such an ambition, but had been unable to free himself from the fetters of social hierarchies. Peter, however, is the face of the new generation. In him, the aspiration and assertion of an entire community come to fruition. He is passionate, tenacious, restless, and is unwilling to accept a fate that is thrust on him by the accident of birth. He is no Nandanar who will endlessly wait outside the temple. (Nandanar was a Dalit devotee of Shiva, who was not allowed to enter his temple, who stood outside and prayed with his view of the sanctum blocked, until Shiva, moved by his prayers, intervened.) Should the door close, “I will break it and enter,” Peter proclaims.

In fact, Peter is not an outsider to Carnatic music. Hailing from a family of mridangam makers, in an ideal world, he would already be part of the larger Carnatic community. What then makes him the “other,” the “outsider”? Why is learning mridangam such an ordeal for him?

The history of Carnatic music has been the stories of its musicians. Instrument makers often come from oppressed communities; in the case of mridangam makers in Tamil Nadu, they are mostly Dalit Christians with Paraiyar ancestry. The narratives and knowledge traditions of these communities have remained on the margins of the system, no matter how central and critical their artisanship and the instruments they create are to the well-being of the music itself. (That all lower caste jobs are in service of the upper castes is, of course, true for all such professions, including manual scavenging.) Yes, there is some acknowledgement of the makers’ contributions. However, it is seldom without self-interest, an upper-caste gaze, a patronising benevolence, or co-option into upper-caste ways of living and being. The film provides glimpses into all these.

Instrument-making practices, with their interconnectedness with specific castes and materials such as animal hide, can easily dislodge all notions of purity, morality, and sacredness, the framework within which the modern iteration of Carnatic music resides. STM dives straight into these linkages between caste and profession. Imparting mridangam-making lessons to his son, Johnson says that the drumheads are made of buffalo, goat, and cow skins. The animals are all female and should have delivered, he explains. Peter spontaneously asks if the leather is acquired after the animals die, or if the animals are killed for leather. Johnson is taken aback. There is a moment’s silence. Without answering the question, Johnson moves on. The silence is pregnant. At a time when the controversy over cow slaughter is a looming socio-political issue in the country, what is Carnatic system’s position on it? How do ideas of purity and righteousness sit with processes that are integral to the system? STM pushes the viewer to ask these uncomfortable questions. The term “leather” used casually in conjunction with the mridangam or the khanjira ceases to be a euphemistic expression. And, the denial of Carnatic music’s conflicted relationship with this material does not remain an option.

Interestingly, the key anchor points in STM are the questions that have been planted throughout the film. Of these, there are two seemingly inconsequential but pertinent questions: first, the interviewer asking Iyer, “Why don’t you play for women?”; second, Abhirami, Iyer’s wife asking her husband, “On stage you always try to overpower the ghatam or khanjira artists. Isn’t that competition?” These are nuanced, bold and challenging questions to a field that feeds on values of patriarchy and hierarchy. And, that these questions should come from women characters in the film gives it gravity.

In its plot, STM does fall into the trap of tropes. But, with a brilliant set of actors, the plot becomes unimportant after a point. STM certainly rises above the plot, as a gentle yet sharp observer of the social, political, and cultural ecology of Carnatic music today. It unravels and interrogates, gives voice to the voiceless, and speaks without saying much. More importantly, it provides paradigms that trigger intense reflection. In depicting Peter’s struggles, humiliations, and his single-minded commitment, STM challenges the current state of complacency and hubris, and offers fresh imaginations for a more inclusive system of music.

The film ends with a world view that Carnatic music is an ever-flowing river that embraces everything that comes along its way. Like it has embraced and assimilated diverse musical thoughts and forms, will it embrace people from diverse communities too? Like Peter has “pushed the boundaries of the mridangam beyond convention,” will Carnatic music go beyond established caste, religion, and gender norms? Will it open the doors and enable many more Peters to become vaaris, heirs to this legacy?


Updated On : 30th Aug, 2019


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