Photo by: Karthik Dwaraknath
The mridangam is a barrel-shaped drum used as a percussion instrument in a classical concert. It is a double-headed drum, with multiple layers of stretched leather skin covering either end of the cylindrical body. The word “mridangam” comes from the union of two Sanskrit words mrida (clay) and angam (body) as the instrument is made from hardened clay.
Mridangams are of two types – kutchi and kappi. In the former, thin wooden sticks or reed (from a plant) are inserted under the top layer of the skin, which gives the mridangam its distinctive sound. In kappi mridangams, a crushed black paste is spread between the underlying wood and first layer of skin. This gives the kappi mridangam a more tabla-like sound.
Recently I across another type of mridangam called the thanthi mridangam which was conceptualised by local mridangist Bangalore R. Ramanath. When I asked him how he had come up with the idea and the whole process involved, here’s what he had to say.
“During one of my concerts, the kappi granules fell from its place, forcing me to return to the usage of kucchi (sticks). When we don’t change the sruthi of the mridhangam this is rarely a problem. However if we reduce the sruthi, the granules falling is more likely to happen. This experience forced me to think of other substitutes. Once when I was talking to my mridhangam maker Shri Krishna Kumar, he suggested the use of tambura thanthi. Various methods of using thanthi in kappi and kucchi style have yielded good results. The one that I found most suitable was where the wire passed through the center of the meetu (outer skin) of the vala moottu (right head) of the mridhangam. Brass wire, steel wire and synthetic nylon wires have been used with results varying marginally. Incidentally I also talked to mridhanga vidhwan Shri Mannargudi Easwaran who had made many such experiments before me. These experiments have yielded very encouraging results.”
Here is an interesting video that shows the making of the thanthi mridangam.
For those not familiar with the role of mridangam in a Carnatic music concert, here is a quick guide. The mridangam is the main percussive instrument in a Carnatic concert. The mridangist plays a supportive role to the main artist who can either be a vocalist or an instrumentalist. The mridangam which is referred to as the pakka vadyam (side-instrument), can also be supported by other percussive instruments such as the ghatam, kanjira and morsing. The latter three are referred to as the upa pakkavadhyams.