'polluting' effect of leather in music?

Vidyasankar Sundaresan vidya at cco.caltech.edu
Thu Apr 3 18:16:06 UTC 1997

On Thu, 3 Apr 1997, Mohkamsing wrote:

> It seems that John refers to two levels of prejudice: one is socio-musical 
> level, and the other religio-cultural.
> If John's assumption is valid then the prejudice against drummers must be 
> worse, because they are more directly and more extensively exposed to the 
> 'polluting' effects of leather (read: death) [just like tanners, butchers, 
> coblers, etc.]. That the socio-cultural status of drummers is very low indeed, 
> needs no mention, but the question is whether the prejudice against them should 
> be ascribed to the close contact/association with leather, or to their 
> relatively low hierarchical status as accompanists [in opposition to high 
> status solists].
> James Kippen, who wrote on North Indian drumming not so long ago, dwells on the  
> stigma and musically low status of accompanists (including bowers and harmonium 
> players), but faills to address the issue from a religio-cultural point of 
> view. I suspect that this aspect of the prejudice is more important than socio-
> musical one.

These sentiments for/against drummers are quite varied across India. What
is true for the tabalchi who accompanies a mujra performance is not true
for a mridangist who accompanies a Carnatic musician. 

Besides, if you look at Indian musical practice in terms of its
practitioners of a century or so ago, you will find it dominated by the
so-called 'musical castes'. In S. India, it was the devadAsI community
which was the real torch-bearer of music and dance before brahmins
entered in large numbers. In Goa and nearby regions, it was the kalAvant
community, and in Orissa, it was the gotipuas and the dAsIs. In the
context of musical castes, the social is religious, the musical is
cultural. It is hard to decouple a social-musical prejudice from a
religious-cultural prejudice. The two factors feed on each other in a
cycle, almost like the buddhist pratItya-samutpAda. In an 
ultra-traditional framework, the drum would be ranked lower than other
instruments because it uses leather. That is why the drum is given only an
accompanying role in Indian classical music. As the drum, so the drummer,
who almost always  used to come from a specific caste. So now the drummer
has a lower status, being an accompanist (the social-musical prejudice)
and because his instrument has leather (the religious-cultural prejudice),
and because he is of a lower caste status. But then, he belongs to a
lower caste because of his profession as a drummer and his contact with
leather. So if you think about it, all these things are highly correlated
to one another. And this does not even begin to address a possible north
Indian prejudice against musicians and dancers in general, owing to
Islamic frowning down upon these arts.

In terms of modern reality, all this is extremely passe. Nowadays, it has
become highly fashionable to be proficient in music and dance. There is a
new set of hierarchies taking over, one that is no longer determined by
the traditional considerations of pollution and ritual purity, at least in
south Indian communities. Almost every brahmin family has its sons trained
in playing some musical instrument, the mridangam being extremely popular.
Every brahmin family has its daughters learning to sing or to play the
violin/veena and/or dance (Bharatanatyam/Odissi) and giving public

And if you think that brahmins would never stoop so low as to learn from
lower castes, you would be completely wrong. To learn to play the 
mridangam, south Indian brahmins became sishyas of piLLais. Trichy
Sankaran, the Toronto-based brahmin mridangist, and his elder cousin
Poovalur Venkatraman, learnt from Palani Subramaniam Pillai. Dance
gurus continue to be Pillais, to whom brahmin parents send their daughters
to learn Bharatnatyam. The so-called brahminical sentiment of keeping its 
'bhAratIya nArI' daughters at home, and away from potentially polluting
contact with lower castes has been completely forgotten. So has the
brahmin prejudice against leather. A brahmin mridangist is not considered
any lower than other brahmins. As an example, one contemporary brahmin
mridangist, Mannargudi Iswaran, has impeccable credentials, being a lineal
descendant of Appayya Dikshita. His daily physical contact with animal 
hide has not decreased his status. Of course, it is not as if one is
always polluted by contact with animal skin. A small piece of deer skin is
always tied into the yajnopavIta of the student. Deer skin and tiger skin
are used in religious contexts all the time. In a non-musical, and
non-religious context, the brahmin executive in a modern corporation decks
himself in fine leather belts and shoes. Why, there are even brahmin
owners of tanneries and brahmin exporters of Indian leather goods. And if
the process of Sanskritization still works, what the brahmins do today
will be done by all other groups eventually. 

Here, I am reminded of a field trip taken by some students from the USA, 
who wondered about the caste of the workers at an industrial shop-floor in
Bombay. One accompanying academician told them that all the workers had to
be Sudras. He probably did not know or did not want to acknowledge that
brahmin, kshatriya and vaisya castes could all be found on the shop-floor
in significant numbers. He would have been right if he held that one's
profession determined one's caste. However, don't we all know that caste
has always been determined by birth? The reality is that Indian caste
society is going through a huge change, although it has not diasappeared
completely. The new hierarchies are being drawn on the basis of what is
prestigious in modern urban India, which increasingly means class and
economic status, not caste. A career in Indian music is sure to give you a
boost in economic status, provided of course that you are talented. (Good
looks, good luck, public relations and personal charisma help too.) If
anybody out there thinks that the traditional prejudices and prohibitions,
whether explicitly mentioned in dharmaSAstra texts or not, govern
contemporary social reality, then my only suggestion is to get out of the
ivory tower and observe the real world. What was true even fifty years ago
is no longer true. The text-book descriptions are increasingly becoming
even more outdated. 

Take a look at the members of this list. A large number of the Indians
here are brahmins who have broken yet another prohibition, and crossed
the seas, to live in Europe and America. Less than eighty years ago, the
mathematician Srinivasa Ramanujam went to England, which made him so
impure in the eyes of his mother and his community, that they insisted on
purification rituals. Today, brahmin boys *and girls* routinely come
abroad to attend graduate school, and their parents and their community
encourages them to do so. They don't think of purification rituals. Nobody
really cares for the old prohibitions any more. I hope this answers
Francois Quiviger's observation about the contemporary tabla players,
Kishan Maharaj and Swapan Chowdhari. 

S. Vidyasankar

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