Mridangam
The mridangam is a percussion instrument from India, especially South India. It is the primary rhythmic accompaniment in a Carnatic music ensemble.

History

In ancient Hindu sculpture, painting, and mythology, the mridangam is often depicted as the instrument of choice for a number of deities including Ganesha (the remover of obstacles) and 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 miruthangam 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 indeed 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 tabla, the mridangam's North Indian musical counterpart, was first constructed by splitting a 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.

Over the years and especially during the early 20th century, great maestros of mridangam also arose, inevitably defining "schools" of mridangam with distinct playing styles. Examples include the Puddukottai school and the Thanjavur school. The virtuosos 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.

Even with the two main schools/styles (Puddukottai school and the Thanjavur school), the mridangam tradition carries on with today's younger mridangam players. From the great masters come second generations maestros like Karaikudi Mani, K Sivaraman, Guruvayur Dorai. Next come the third generation players like Tiruvarur Bhaktavatsalam, Suresh Ramachandhran, and Mannargudi Easwaran, Tiruvarur Vaidhyanathan, Prapancham Ravindran, Vasudevan Govindarajan (Canada), N.Lakshmi Ganesh, son and disciple of the stalwart Late Sri Kumbakonam M.Narayanaswamy Iyer, just to name a few. Then come the current youngsters, some of whom reside outside India and who would be in their teens or young adults; Sanjay Vanen(Singapore), Rohan Krishnamurthy(USA), Rajna Swaminathan(USA - probably the youngest and one of only a handful of female mridangam artistes in the world).

Physical components

The mridangam is a double-sided drum whose body is usually made using a hollowed piece of jackfruit wood about an inch thick. The two mouths or apertures of the drum are covered with a goat skin leather and laced to each other with leather straps around the circumference of drum. These straps are put into a state of high tension to stretch out the circular membranes on either side of the hull, allowing them to resonate when struck. These two membranes are dissimilar in width to allow for the production of both bass and treble sounds from the same drum.

The bass aperture is known as the "thoppi" or "eda bhaaga" and the smaller aperture is known as the "valanthalai" or "bala bhaaga". The smaller membrane, when struck, produces higher pitched sounds with a metallic timbre. The wider aperture produces lower pitched sounds. The goat skin covering the smaller aperture is anointed in the center with a black disk made of rice flour, ferric oxide powder and starch. This black paste is known as the "sAtham" or "karnai" and gives the mridangam its distinct metallic timbre. The combination of two inhomogeneous circular membranes allows for the production of unique and distinct harmonics. Pioneering work on the mathematics of these harmonics was done by Nobel Prize winning physicist C. V. Raman..

Methods of use

Immediately prior to use in a performance, the leather covering the wider aperture is made moist and a spot of paste made from rice flour and water is applied to the center, which lowers the pitch of the left membrane and gives it a very powerful resonating bass sound. The artist tunes the instrument by varying the tension in the leather straps spanning the hull of the instrument. This is achieved by placing the mridangam upright with its larger side facing down, and then striking the tension-bearing straps located along of circumference of the right membrane with a heavy object (such as a stone). A wooden peg is sometimes placed between the stone and the mridangam during the tuning procedure to ensure that the force is exerted at precisely the point where it is needed. Striking the periphery of the right membrane in the direction toward the hull raises the pitch, while striking the periphery from the opposite side (moving away from the hull) lowers the pitch. The pitch must be uniform and balanced at all points along the circumference of the valanthalai for the sound to resonate perfectly. The pitch can be balanced with the aid of a pitch pipe or a tambura. The larger membrane can also be tuned in a similar manner, though it is not done as frequently. Note that since the leather straps are interwoven between both the smaller and larger aperture, adjusting the tension on one side often can affect the tension on the other.

Posture

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 in words as follows: 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.

There is also a parallelounds of the mridangam. Students of this art are required to learn and vigorously practice both the fingering strokes taught as the training becomes more advanced, which are generally used as aesthetic embellishments while playing. These notes im), and chaapu. The combination of these finger strokes produces complex mathematical patterns.

Modern usage

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 acustics from the ones used in Carnatic mucic. The significant player of the mridangam in modern times is Vidwan Umayalapuram K. Sivaraman who has been playing and advancing the technique since 1938.

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