Mridangam, the name literally means “clay form”. It is a South Indian Percussion Instrument, very widely used as an accompaniment to vocal and Instrumental music and is also a very popular solo instrument. The wooden shell of the instrument is carved out of a single block of jack or rose wood but it was originally made of clay in earlier times. It is barrel shaped with openings at both ends and has a hollow in the centre. The right hand side called the valantharai has two layers of hide, a black paste made of boiled rice and a fine black powder applied in the centre of the first hide this is called the karanai. The quantity of powder applied will determine the pitch of the instrument, fine pieces of straw are placed in between the first and second layers of hide and this provides the rich tone of the mridangam. The left hand side called the thoppi has three layers of hide, before a performance a temporary mixture of rye flour or semolina is placed in the centre of the first hide which produces the bass sounds and is removed after each performance. The caps on either side are joined with a leather strap across the drum and is pulled with great tension to raise the pitch of the instrument. The sounds on the mridangam vary in pitch, timbre and resonance. The instrument is played with the hands, fingers and wrists in a peculiar manner. A mridangam player provides excellent accompaniment to vocal and instrument music. This is the classical drum of South Indian music; and is used in all types of concerts, Inclusive of concerts of vocal music, instrumental music, dance, Katha kalekshapams and Bhajan. It is included in the celebrated Vadya trayam — Vina, Venu, Mridangam. This is an indispensable accompaniment. Mridangam solos given in concerts are a real treat to the ear. Drum playing is a great art in India and the like of it, is not to be seen in many countries It requires years of practice to attain proficiency in playing the Mridangam The celestial musician, Nandikeswara is said to be an adept in playing the instrument. A solo performance on this instrument reaches a very high standard of rhythmic intricacies and sound dynamics. A very high degree of speed is also attained to give a soul stirring and pulsating performance. Past masters of the mridangam are Pudukkottai Guru Manpundia Pillai, Tanjore Narayanaswami Appa, Palani Muthiah Pillai, Dakshinamurthi Pillai, Palani Subramaniam, Kumbakonam Azhaganambi Pillai, Mylatoor Sami Iyer, Palghat Mani Iyar, CS Murugupoopathy, Palghat Raghu, MN Kandaswami, Vellore Ramabadran and many more great masters not mentioned.
Present day masters are Vidwan TK Murthy, Sri Umaiyalpuram Sivaraman, Trichy Shankaran, Mannargudi Easvaran and, many more greats.
Making of the mridangam
The name Mridangam literally means clay—body. The shell was originally made of clay, though later, it came to be made of wood. The instrument is also called Madalam. In ancient times, the use of the black paste at the centre of the right head of the Mridangam was not known. The utility of this paste was realized only at a later period. It is only in the later sculptures that we see this circular paste at the centre. The body of the mridangam is scooped out of a single block of wood. Jack-wood or redwood (Alangium decapitalam) or the wood of margos3 tree is used for making the body. The core of the coconut tree and palm tree is also used for the purpose. The jack tree grown in the vicinity of temples is ideally suited for making the mridangam, since the sound waves of temple music and temple bells have had their impact on the tree and made the wood responsive. The shape of the body of the mridangam might be likened to two bottom-less flowerpots, joined at their rims. Skins fastened to leather braces are stretched over the two heads. Small cylindrical pieces of wood placed between the shell and the braces help in adjusting the pitch of the instrument. The right—head of the mridangam consists of three concentric layers of skin, the innermost being concealed from view. These are respectively called Vettuttau Kottuttau (Gi-) and Ukaraitau. The outer ring is called Mitu (Mittu tol in Tamil) and the inner ring Chapu Calf skin is used for the outer ring and sheep skin for the inner ring. In the centre of the right head is a permanent fixture of black paste.The circular layer, called , soru karanai and marundu in Tamil, is a composition of manganese dust, boiled rice and tamarind juice or a composition of fine iron Filings and boiled rice. The stone called kitan is found in deposits in places like Vallam in Tanjore District. This stone is powdered and mixed with rice in a proper proportion and used. The black paste called Chitam in Tamil is applied on the inner skin in small grains and finely rubbed over with the polished Surface of a hard stone for hardening.
The mridangam paste is thickest in the centre and thins out towards the edges. It is this black layer that gives the fine characteristic tone to the mridangam. The left-head consists only of two rings. The outer one is of buffalo skin and the inner one is of sheep skin. At the commencement of a concert, a paste of soji and water or of boiled rice, water and ashes is temporarily fixed on to the centre of this head and this paste is scraped off at the close of the concert. The quantity of this paste is so adjusted that the note given by the left-head is exactly an octave below the note given by the right-head. Sometimes the pitch of the left head will be found to be a fourth below the note given by the right head of the mridangam.
The diameter of the left-head is greater than that of the right-head by about half an inch. The diameter of the right-head varies from 6″ to 7″ and the diameter of the left-head from 6″ to 7″. The right head is tuned to the tonic note of the performer. On the two hoops of the instrument, there are sixteen inter-spaces for the leather braces of buffalo skin to pass through. By down-ward or upward strokes, with a small hammer on the hoop at appropriate points, the pitch of the instrument can be increased or decreased by as much as a full tone.
The instrument is played with the two hands, wrists and finger tips. It is a tata vadya ie; played with the hands alone. Jati exercises are first learnt vocally and practised on a dummy instrument. The practice on the mridangam is then commenced with preliminary beats and strokes. Even as a clever musician is able to show his creative skill in the field of music, an expert mridangam player is able to display his powers of creative skill in the sphere of tala by playing new permutations and combinations of jatis. The cross rhythmical accompaniment provided by the mridangam player in an Indian concert is something unique. The rhythmical harmony provided by him considerably heightens the interest ci a concert. Pakhawaj, the corresponding instrument in Northern India, has smaller heads.
There are two kinds of Mridangams (a)Low-pitched (Taggu Sruti) and (b)High-pitched (Hechu Sruti). The Taggu sruti mridangam is intended to be used for pitches ranging from 1 to 3 i.e., from C to E and the Hechu sruti mridangam for pitches ranging from 4 to 5 i.e., from F to G sharp. The lower-pitched variety is used in concerts of male singers and higher-pitched in concerts of lady singers.