ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Who Does the River Embrace?

Thoughts on Sarvam Thaala Mayam

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.

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Updated On : 30th Aug, 2019
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