The origin and mechanics of the Indian classical musical instrument Mridangam

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India was the hub of different types of art, especially music in ancient times. One of the oldest and most important musical instruments is Mridangam

Mridangam is a classical musical instrument used mainly in South Indian music. It is a popular percussion instrument, which is a double-headed drum and made of different types of wood. It is widely used in vocal and instrumental music presentations in South India. The instrument is also known as maddal or maddalam in some places.

Etymology

The name of the instrument is formed from the union of two Sanskrit words ‘Mrit’ and ‘Anga’. In Sanskrit, “Mrit” means clay or earth and “Anga” means member. In the early days when the instrument came into being, the instrument was made of hardened clay. Over the years, people have started using different types of wood to increase their durability.

Story

Mridangam is known as Tannumai in Tamil culture. In ancient Tamil literature, Sangam literature, there is the first mention of Mridangam. There is a detailed reference of the instrument in the Natyasastra. It was the most widely used and important percussion instrument of the Sangam period. It was also used at the start of a war because people believed that its sound was holy and powerful enough to ward off enemy arrows and protect the king. After the Sangam period, it is mentioned in the epic ‘Silappatikaram’. In the epic, Mridangam was part of the Antarakottu, which is a musical collection played at the start of any dramatic performance. This was later developed into the iconic Bharatnatyam. The Miridangam player holds the title Tannumai aruntozhil mutalvan.

The instruments have also been mentioned in Hindu religious scriptures. It is said to have been one of the favorite instruments of the bahana of Lord Ganesha and Lord Shiva, Nandi. According to mythology, Nandi performed Mridangam during Lord Shiva’s Taandav dance. Hence, the instrument is known as Deva Vaadyam, the instrument of the gods. Another story shows that the sound of Mridangam is a recreation of the sound that was made when Lord Indra rode across the sky on his elephant. Many believe that the Tabla instrument was created by splitting a Mridangam into two.

Construction

The body of the Mridangam is carved from a single block of wood. The inside of the wooden block is hollowed out to make it hollow. Most Mridangam makers prefer Jackwood or Redwood to make it. But sometimes the kernel of a coconut and palm tree and the wood of the Morogosa tree are also used to make Mridangam nowadays. The instrument has the shape of a barrel and its left head is a little bigger than the right head. The length of the instrument is usually a foot and a half or two feet and it has a diameter of twenty-five to thirty centimeters. Preaching requires great skill to achieve perfection. On the right head of the drum there are three concentric layers of skin. The innermost layer which is the full skin is hidden from view. The concealed layer is cowhide, and sheepskin is used for the inner ring, and calfskin is used for the outer ring. Goatskin is also used in some Mridangams.

The left head has two rings: the outer ring is buffalo skin and the inner ring is sheepskin or goatskin. The two parchments are stretched and held together by a braid made of twisted leather straps. The leather straps connected to the braids can be loosened or tightened to tune the instrument. Mridangam is very closely related to another classical Pakhavaj percussion instrument which is mainly used in Hindustani traditional music of northern India.

Mridangam Schools

The first school to teach the game of Mridangam was established in the 20th century. The most famous and prominent schools of Mridangam past and present are Thanjavur school and Puddukottai school. Both schools have their distinct styles of play. Mridangam game has become very popular over the years and there are Mridangam players all over the world. It has also been adopted by various styles of music other than Indian classical music.

Notable Mridangam Players

There are great Mridangam players in the past and in the present. Some of the most notable Mridangam players across the world are Guruvayur Dorai, Anoor Anantha Krishna Sharma, Karaikudi Mani, Bombay CN Balaji, Kovai Venugopal, Mannargudi Easwaran, Prapancham Ravindran, Srimushnam Raja Rao, N. Lakshmi Ganesh, Rohan Krishnamurthy, Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman, Vasudevan Govindarajan, K. Murthy, Palghat R. Raghu, Tiruvarur Bhaktavatsalam, etc. Palghat Mani Iyer, Palani Subramanuam Pillai and CS Murugabhupathy are known as the Trinity of Midangam for their incredible contribution to art.

In modern times, Mridangam is used in Carnatic music performances. Although they are most popular in South India, they are played all over the world. It is a very popular instrument which is used in the Yakshagana orchestra as an accompaniment instrument and there it is called Maddale.

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