The music of India is one of the oldest systems of music in the world. It has two branches. The Hindustani sangeet (music) of the North and the Carnatic sangeet in the south. Collectively these two limbs form the body of a musical tradition that is said to extend back several thousand years.
The Carnatic sangeet of southern India prefers a drum called Mridangam. It is the principal drum used in the performance of classical South Indian music and dance. This instrument is a single piece of wood that is hollowed out and has playing heads on both sides. The Mridangam is a south Indian representative of a class of instrument known as Mridang. This class includes other drums like Maddal, Shuddha maddalam, Khol, and Pakhawaj. Mridangam forms the basis for Carnatic classical percussion in India.
One major winning point in Carnatic music is the rhythm management which admits of any amount of innovation and growth. In Western music, the rhythm instrument is the drum. The drum just maintains the pulse rate of the music and it calls for more of brawn than brain. In the big contrast with this, the Indian ruler among collision instruments - the Mridangam is first “tuned” to the appropriate pitch and far more than drum beat, it accompanies the music. It enriches and enhances the musical effect of the whole troupe. When on a solo turn, the variety and patterns and mode of rhythmic travel is a veritable feast to both the learned and the layman. That is the reason Mridangam is known as the king in the rhythmic realm.
One of the differences between Indian Classical Music and its western counterpart is the importance given to percussion in the former style. Percussion is the backbone of Indian classical music. Its importance is best expressed in the saying Shruti Mata Laya Pita (the microtone is the mother while tempo is the father).
In ancient Hindu sculpture, painting, and mythology, the Mridangam is often depicted as the instrument of choice for a number of deities like Nandi, who is the vehicle and companion of Lord Shiva. Nandi is said to have played the Mridangam during Shiva's arcane Tandava dance, causing a divine rhythm to resound across the heavens. The Mridangam is thus also known as “Deva Vaadyam,” or “Instrument of the Gods.”
The word “Mridangam” is derived from the two Sanskrit words “Mrid” (clay or earth) and “Ang,” (body). Early Mridangams were made of hardened clay. Over the years, the Mridangam evolved to be made of different kinds of wood due to its increased durability, and today, its body is constructed from wood of the jackfruit tree. It is widely believed that the Mridanga, the Mridangam's North Indian musical counterpart, was first constructed by splitting an Mridangam in half. With the development of the Mridangam came the evolution of the tala (rhythmic) system. The system of talas (or taalams) in South Indian Carnatic music may be the most complex percussive rhythm system of any form of classical music.
The Mridangam is played resting it parallel to the floor. A right-handed Mridangam artist plays the smaller membrane with his or her right hand and the larger membrane with the left hand. This can be described simple: The Mridangam rests upon the right foot and ankle, the right leg being slightly extended, while the left leg is bent and rests against the hull of the drum and against the torso of the artist. For a left-handed percussionist, the legs and hands are switched.
The fingering technique is a very important consideration in a discussion pertaining to Mridangam. The Mridangam has a balance between the powerful and delicate techniques. The evolution of Mridangam may be traced to an archetypical Mridangam. This instrument had a close association to the ancient mythological dramas. This association meant that the drums would sometimes have to support both masculine and feminine characters. The delicate movements of the dance are known as Lasya while the more powerful masculine movements are known as Tandava. Powerful techniques were developed to accentuate the masculine roles while delicate techniques were developed to support the feminine roles.
Basic strokes on the Mridangam:
1. Tha: Non-vibrating tone played on the left hand side with the whole palm.
2. Dhi: Non-vibrating tone played on the center black portion of the right hand side using middle, ring and small fingers.
3. Thom: Vibrating tone played on the outer side of the left hand side.
4. Nam: Vibrating tone played on the outer layer of the right hand side using index finger, minimizing the black portion vibration with middle or ring finger- place the third finger in the gap in ring and the second finger hits the outer layer of the right hand side of the Mridangam (called ‘Saatham’).
There is also a parallel set of rhythmic solfa passages (known as “solkattu”) which is sounded by mouth to mimic the sounds of the Mridangam. Students of this art are required to learn and vigorously practice both the fingering strokes and solfa passages to achieve proficiency and accuracy in this art.
Many other strokes are also taught as the training becomes more advanced, which are generally used as aesthetic embellishments while playing. These notes include gumki (or gamakam), and chaapu. The combination of these finger strokes produces complex mathematical patterns that have both aesthetic and theoretical appeal. Increasingly complex calculations (kanakku) and meters (nadais) may be employed when the Mridangam is played.
1. Ta: A sharp flat note played with the index finger in the middle of the black portion on the right side of the Mridangam.
2. Gumukki: A variating bass tone produced by playing on the inner layer of the lower end of the left hand side. Sound is produced only when there is a special paste applied.
3. Full Chaapu: It is a vibrating tone played with the small finger on the right hand side, between the black patch and the outer layer. The sound is tuned to the tonic of the Tambura.
4. Ara Chaapu: A note similar to Chaapu, but is an octave higher, and is played with the side of the hand and less of the pinky.
5. Dheem: A vibrational tone version of nam played on the black portion of the Mridangam.
Classically, training is by dharmic apprenticeship and includes both the yoga of drum construction and an emphasis on the internal discipline of voicing Mridangam tone and rhythm both syllabically and linguistically, in accordance with Rigveda, more than on mere performance.
Over the years and especially during the early 20th century, great maestros of Mridangam also arose, defining “schools” of Mridangam with distinct playing styles. Examples include the Puddukottai School and the Thanjavur School. The professional Palani Subramaniam Pillai, Palghat Mani Iyer, and C.S. Murugabhupathy contributed so much to the art that they are often referred to as the Mridangam Trinity. There is also another style i.e., the blending of Saakotai Rangu Iyengar's and Kumbakonam Azhaganambi Pillai's taught to hundreds of disciples by the legendary Late Sri Kumbakonam Narayanaswamy Iyer and late Sri Kumbakonam Rajappa Iyer. Other prominent Mridangam maestros of today include Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman, T. K. Murthy, Trichy Sankaran, Palghat R. Raghu, Karaikudi Mani, Guruvayur Dorai, Srimushnam Raja Rao, Vellore Ramabhadran, Anoor Anantha Krishna Sharma, Kovai Venugopal, Suresh Ramachandhran, Mannargudi Easwaran and Trichur C. Narendran.
Today the Mridangam is most widely used in Carnatic music performances. These performances take place all over Southern India and are now popular all over the world. As the principle rhythmic accompaniment (pakkavadyam), the Mridangam has a place of utmost importance, ensuring all of the other artists are keeping their timing in check while providing support to the main artist. One of the highlights of a modern Carnatic music concert is the percussion solo (thani avarthanam), where the Mridangam artist and other percussionists such as kanjira, morsing, and ghatam vidwans exchange various complex rhythmic patterns, culminating in a grand finale where the main artists resumes where he or she left off. Mridangam is used as an accompanying instrument in Yakshagana Himmela (orchestra) where it is called Maddale. However, Mridangam used in Yakshagana markedly different in structure and acoustics from the ones used in Carnatic music. The significant player of the Mridangam in modern times is Vidwan Umayalapuram K. Sivaraman who has been playing and advancing the technique since 1938.
Mridangam is manufactured in shops that are exclusively meant for manufacturing these particular instruments. In such shops the contribution of a number of experienced technicians who are well versed in the job is immense. The more experienced Mridanga makers provide the better instrument. Most of all the eminent Mridanga exponents prefer to use the personalized Mridanga developed by the most experienced Mridanga makers from the Mridanga shops. One of such Mridanga shops is “Shantha Tabala Works” in Benglauru since 5 decades.
Vidwan.R.S.Anantharamaiah being born and brought up in a traditional family, was very much interested in playing percussion instruments like Mridanga, Khanjira and Dholki for many concerts. Later his interest turned towards the making of the instruments like Mridanga and Tabala. He learned the making of these instruments for many years under the guidance of Vidwan. Venkatappa that led him to open “Shantha Mridanga Works”. Vidwan.R.S.Anantharamaiah founder proprietor of Shantha Tabala works established the store in 1962. He was recognized as the best Tabala and Mridanga maker of his generation. His instruments were purchased by many of the famous artists. Currently his son Mr. Srinivasa Anantharamaiah is looking after the shop and keeping busy himself by making these instruments. He also has students from Japan and other foreign countries to learn morsing / mourching, playing Tabala, Mridanga, Ghatam, Kanjeera and Dholak from him. The instruments built at Shantha Tabala works are issued ‘fumigation certificate’ referred as ‘pest control certificate’ by legal fumigator and then they are exported to foreign countries like Australia and etc.