PART 1 ; ORIGIN, DEVELOPMENT AND FEATURES
Mridangam a must-percussion accompaniment for a carnatic vocal recital is a gift to the musicians of this genre from none other than Nandikeswara the mount, escort and close aide of Lord Shiva. Deity Nandi played Mridangam in consonance with the aggressive dancing of Shiva known in mythology as Shivathandavam which depicts the most intricate and convoluted style of dancing presented with astounding contorted postures of body embellished with delicate movements of limbs that camouflages the ferocity with utter
The evolution of Mridangam spreads over a period of more than 2000 years and this fact is
evidenced in the temple sculptures, rock edicts of various rulers, and innumerable stone
carvings found in myriads of locations in India. Mridangam takes its name from the conjoined Sanskrit words Mrid and Angam wherein Mrid means earth/clay and Angam means part/ body.Researchers have established beyond doubt that in its incipience the main body- that is the shell or barrel -of the Mridangam was moulded out of highly cohesive and plasticized clay which was dried under the sun and later burnt in a kiln like any other earthen / terracotta artifact. This shell / barrel the dimensions of which underwent many a sprucing and refined modifications was then harnessed with leather pieces cut round and with easily pliable straps.
The most vital stage in the process of making a Mridangam is the application of a kind
of mucilage (concocted with finely powdered basalt / black granite with a fairly high percentage of ferrous content and well cooked rice) in the centre of the right side disc.
In the musical parlance this component is known as "Sadam / Soru". This hard paste is applied with fingers in wafer thin layers the number of which depends on the pitch or the "sruthi"of the instrument. This patch of "sadam" application exclusively contributes to the metallic ringing sound of Mridangam.
Over a period of time the clay shell gave way to a wooden one which was found to add to the tonal quality besides being absolutely durable and less heavy. After innumerable trial and error, wood obtained from the trunk of jack fruit tree was adjudged most suitable since
it was subjected to minimal distortions that the change in atmospheric temperature would
induce in solids. The leather components are of hides of goat, cow calf and buffalo. Broadly, skin of goat and cow calf is used for the right side membranes and that of buffalo and goat for the left. For tying up the right and left units over on to the shell, leather strips of buffalo skin are used. The making of Mridangam is the work of a highly skilled person possessing in depth knowledge in music especially in rhythm compositions unique in
Carnatic music. He is an artist by himself with keen ears to distinguish between different
pitches (Shruthi) without the need for a base tuner such as Thambura or Shruthi box.
Different sizes of the shell cater to different pitches and a chosen size in respect of
length of shell, diameters of right and left apertures, and the enlarged diameter of the ridge
(or the bulge) situated in the shell nearer to the left aperture shall form the basis for the
bass and treble features of the instrument. A specific combination of these sizes will cater to a range of pitch(Shruthi) that is from less than one to 2, above 2to above 3, 4 and above etc.,. These ranges are classified as Thakku ( lower pitches) and Sthayee (higher pitches). The Mridangam player when accompanying a vocalist in a concert goes in for a Thakku if the singer is male and a Sthayee if the singer is female. Within the given range, the pitch of the instrument can be further fine tuned to harmonize with that of the singer. Only the right side membrane with the mucilage coating is fine tuned which is achieved by striking the rim downward all around to make it become taut or upward to slacken it. The tauter the leather higher the pitch and the slacker it is the lower.the pitch. For this purpose two simple devices are used; one is a hard granite stone ellipsoidal in shape which fits into the fist and the other is a stub of tenacious bamboo or wood approximately 3" long. The stub is kept in the desired location of the rim and struck with the stone upward or downward depending upon the requisite plus or minus variations in the Shruthi at which the vocalist would sing. .
The Mridangist cocking his ears listens to the adjusted tone and this process is complete
when the fine tuned Mridangam is harmonized with the droning base tuner say a Thambura.
There is no tuning done for the left side which is known in the musical parlance as "Thoppi" a term which is synonymous with the word cap. It is moistened and applied over with a tough paste / dough obtained by coalescing semolina (rava) with water. This hand-smeared application in the centre of Thoppi forming a rough circular shape facilitates it to produce a kind of ear caressing sound unique in itself. When the playing is concluded the semolina paste is peeled off and the Thoppi cleaned thoroughly.
It was and still is the golden rule that no animal is killed exclusively for the hide that went into the making of a Mridangam. Such requirements are met with out of the raw hide
disposed of by abattoir where animals are slaughtered for the meat that is consumed by
There is no percussion instrument in the whole world which can equal the versatility of Mridangam and its scientifically developed grammar built into its rendition mode remains
unsurpassable posing a great challenge to the musicians world over. In a Mridangam
more than 12 distinctly varying sounds can be produced and this will reach 24 if a little
bit of overlapping is conceded. This can be perceived by the reader only with the aid of
an audio system. The permutation and combination of these 12 + 24 +.... sonorous as
well as flat sounds while playing rhythmic phrases would horripilate and enthrall the
listener and make him / her feel as if he / she were atop a precipice. There are staccato
and rapid-fire phrases that come cascading and rolling one over the other. These phrases are so composed that they snugly fit into a set of cyclic beats popularly known as Thalam of which there are many the details of which will be outlined in part 2 of this treatise.
PART 2 THEORY OF TEACHING AND LEARNING AND ABHYASAM
To learn to play Mridangam is an arduous task in that like in almost all branches of
fine arts it needs tremendous focus, steadfastness and of course sincerity and involvement.
Having a robust physique and the stamina that goes with it will contribute to a great extent
in withstanding the rigors of intense practising of the primary lessons It is generally believed that people who have long slender fingers will gain acumen at a faster pace. There have been exceptions to this belief inasmuch as the legendary Palghat Mani Iyer played Mridangam to the wonderment of the world with short stubby fingers.
In the long past the Gurukulam style of imparting lessons was in vogue like it was for vocal
music. With the changing life style and various other socio-economic constraints in the modern world the Gurus became teachers who started offering courses encapsuled in a
stifling time-frame and classes became the order of the day- like say 3 hours a day; 4 days a week.Gurudakhshina transformed into compensation package. Not only this, colleges
and universities with their spread in musicology have now faculties created exclusively
for Mridangam by enrolling in which one can obtain bachelors and post-graduate degrees/diplomas. Remarkable! I would say. But these mutations have not in anyway
undermined the attraction to this instrument and as we see without a trace of ambiguity,
there is no slump in the enthusiasm for learning this divine art, for Nandikeshwara from the
heavenly abodes above keeps showering his blessings.
It would be a matter of some interest to know that a fledgling Mridangist in the bygone era
had to practise in the preliminary stages on a device fully made of wood. This device comprised of two discs of about 9" diameter and an inch thick connected to each other
with a cross bar about 20" long all wood. This was a rough replica of a real Mridangam.
The student was allowed access to the proper instrument only after the guru had made up his mind that the student had sufficient potential to grasp end execute all the theoretical
as well as the practical aspects of the subject. Practising on the wooden disc enabled
the learners' palm harden up and when he started playing on the leather membrane the
sound of every stroke became quite distinctly audible. This practice of using wooden substitute for a Mridangam ended with the Gurukulam system and is now obsolete.
The method of teaching may vary slightly from teacher to teacher but the primary lessons
are monophonic. In the theory-segment all about Thalams and its grammar is taught.
Thalam which can be described as "cyclic-counted-beats" is a brilliant innovation in carnatic music and this is a link that unifies rhythm and melody. There is no other musical compendium in the world so scientifically evolved combining rhythm and melody with mathematical precision. This is analogous to two persons straying away as their whims permit yet remaining linked together within a preordained demarcation and arriving together
at the destination concurrently with absolute aplomb. Here Thalam acts as catalyst to transform these two, that is melody and rhythm, into clairvoyants. Such is the profoundness of the methodology built into this system.
There are no prescribed printed text books conceived in imparting Mridangam lessons.
The pupil writes down all the rhythm phrases that is taught to him and memorizes them.
He then in the presence of the teacher mouths the phrases synchronizing them with the
Thlam beats followed by practising them on the instrument. The lessons grow and grow and so do the volume of note books. These he preserves with utmost reverence as if it is
something to be worshiped. Worshiped it is indeed On the Saraswathi Pooja day these
note books are stacked in the shrine specially created for the occasion and these form part of the paraphernalia of the ritual. The Mridangam that he practises on also would be along
with the objects of worship. On the next day of Saraswathi Pooja that is on the Vijayadasami day the student plays the Mridangam starting from the very first lesson
for some time however much he has advanced through the course. A new lesson hitherto not taught / learnt is also taken up for practice.This custom is followed not only by the students but also by professionals who are well established in the field. Special prayers are chanted supplicating to Nandikeshwara.
To describe the Thalam layout it would be a marathon exercise and hence only the basics
with which one can with out much effort perceive the gargantuan nature of this formulation is discussed here.
The Thalams come under five sects / groups, known as Jaatis in the vernacular of carnatic music. These are Thisram, Chaturasram, Khandam, Mhisram and Sankirnam. There are seven most popular and oft-applied formulas of Thalams which are Dhuruva, Matya, Rupaka
Thirupudai, Jumpai, Ata and Eka. The characteristics each of these Jaatis can be applied to each of these Thalams and so there are in all 35 Thalams. These compositions are taught to the student in stages and steps along with the rhythmic phrases that would fit into each of these Thalams starting with single cycle advancing to cover multiple cycles.
Besides these 35 Thalams there are many more which the student come to learn at some
stage or other during the training period.
The teaching of rhythm-phrase ( "Sol" as per the Mridangist's lexicon) is comparable to
that of a language which starts with alphabets followed by mono-syllables, multisyllables,
words, phrases, sentences and the grammar that keeps the such formations reined.
In English the lesson starts with 26 alphabets A, B, C, D......etc.,. Likewise Mridangam
lesson starts with 4. These are Tha, Thi, Thom, Num. In these Tha and Thom are played
on the left membrane and Thi and Num on the right. The established practice is to play
these 4 "alphabets" twice through a 8 beat cycle of Thalam which is Chaturasra Jaati Thirupudai Thalam also known as Adhi Thalam. The pace of playing twice through one cycle is specified as "Vilambam". Then these strokes are played 4 times and 8 times
increasing the rapidity but keeping the time span of the Thalam beat same all through.
These two rapider paces are Madhyamam and Dhuritham. Many more such playing strokes
follow some of which are pronounced "Dhin, Na, Ri, Ke and Da, etc., . There are many compositions combining these basic "Alphabets" and these are practised at the three paces described above. By intense "Abhyasam" the student picks up proficiency and
reach the stage of becoming a full-fledged Mridangam artist. It is to be pointed out
that the rhythm phrases and compositions abound and become so voluminous that a
student would up end up with nearly 2000 to 3000 pages ( fools cap size) of hand scripted
lessons / notes depending upon the extent of tuition he receives and imparted. Interestingly unlike drums of western music there are no notations prescribed for beats .
in Indian percussion instruments especially Mridangam and Tabla. The individual beat or
a composition thereof can be written down in any language that the student is proficient in
When the teacher becomes quite satisfied about the capability of the learner to play as
an accompanying artiste as well as to perform solo a new Mridangist is born who would
all the time strive to keep climbing the ladder of popularity and to become well known in the
circle of critics. But his learning process would continue because new creations and innovations in his chosen field keep pouring in.
There are many many Mridangists mostly Brahmins who occupy the top slots in the
hierarchy of this branch of carnatic music. If I sift them out in my mind to identify the ones par excellence in the contemporary scenario then two names emerge and they are
Guru Karaikudi Mani and J. Vaidhanathan ( son of vocalist D.K. Jayaraman and nephew
of D.K Pattammal). Their way of handling and playing the instrument and the Nadham
that emanates from their Mridangams are simply superb and enthralling to the highest
degree. It is with some kind of sorcery that they perform on the Mridangam keeping the listeners- only those who have a keen ear for this gift from Nandikeshwara-spellbound.
These two highly accomplished artistes shine like morning-star in the horizon of percussionists ;no wonder so, because the nuances they flash successively like streaks of lightning are hypnotic
Speaking of "Nadham" it has no equivalent in English. It is not sound and not at all noise
either. It is acoustical waves or ripples that transcend sound, noise etc., sometimes crunchy some other times mellifluous with evocative qualities. It pervades through the mind anointing and massaging it leaving a residue of utter bliss. Between Thakku and Sthayee
Mridangams the the former is always preferred by leading Vidwans because of its more soul-filling timbre qualities and mass appeal. For this reason Palghat Mani Iyer and his peers almost never accompanied female vocalists. Mani Iyer and D.K Pattamal became
Sambandis which familial relationship made it an obligation for Mani Iyer to play Mridangam
as an accompanist for D.K Pattamal on a few occasions.
Dwelling on the subject it would not be out of place to mention that carnatic music vouches
that Shruthi Matha, Laya Pitha which aphorism doesn't need any corroboration. Here Laya
is attributed to all percussion instruments the king of which is Mridangam. But unfortunately this very important aspect of the carnatic music is still remaining unpopular
and unappreciated by a large group of patrons who claim themselves to be ardent lovers of
carnatic music. This fact becomes more accentuated especially in a concert when the
Mridangam Vidhwan starts his solo performance ( Thani Aavarthanam) many of the attendant listeners leave the auditorium as if an interval has been declared for them to relieve and refresh themselves. This despicable behavior can be witnessed time and again
in the Sabhas of Chennai which is the world's capital for carnatic music. All I can say is
these deserters who have opted to forsake the Pitha of Laya are nothing but a bunch of
desecraters of the divinity of the carnatic music as a whole. They become reduced to
hypocrites and prove themselves to be " Jgna Soonyass". Maybe a day will come when this trend will change and one and all will become knowledgeable enough to revere the
Pitha the Laya and put an end to committing this kind of sacrilegious act.
LET THE GLORY OF MRIDANGAM SPREAD ALL OVER
Received from Mr. Bhaskaran Sivaraman