The mridangam is a double-sided drum found primarily in South India. It is the main form of rhythmic accompaniment for Carnatic music and religious kirtan music. The mridangam originated from the pakhavaj drum, a barrel-shaped drum that is also the predecessor of the North Indian tabla. The mridangam is an ancient drum that has been enjoyed for many centuries.
According to ancient Hindu scriptures, the mridangam was known as “Instrument of the Gods” due to its preference among a number of deities including Ganesha and Nandi. Legend has it that Nandi, companion of Lord Shiva, played the mridangam during the performance of the “Taandav” dance by Shiva.
The name mridangam is derived from 2 Sanskrit words, “mrid” meaning clay, and “ang” meaning body. In fact, the original material of the mridangam was made of clay. Modern day drums are commonly made from hollowing out a single block of wood, usually from the jackfruit tree. The body of the mridangam is barrel-shaped with two openings at each end. The two openings are covered with leather and are laced together with leather straps around the circumference of the drum. The straps are strung with high tension and are used to tune the drum, occasionally with the aid of wooden pegs placed in between the straps. The bass head is usually tuned one octave lower than the treble head.
The right side of the drum is the treble head. It is made of 3 concentric rings of leather, although only 2 are visible from the outside. The outer ring is usually made of cow hide, while the inner ring is usually made of goat hide. A permanent black spot of paste covers the center of the drum head. This paste is made from boiled rice, iron filings, and manganese. This spot of paste gives the mridangam its unique tones. Striking this spot creates different harmonics based on the various finger techniques used.
The left side of the drum is the bass head. It is made of two rings of leather, the outer ring is made of buffalo hide and the inner ring is made of goat hide. Before playing the mridangam, a temporary paste of rice flour and water is applied to the bass head. This makes the leather more flexible and it lowers the pitch. It also allows the player to produce a more dramatic bass sound that is characteristic to the mridangam by bending the note after the head is struck. After each performance, the paste is removed.
The Indian Tala System
The tala rhythmic system is perhaps one of the most complex rhythmic systems in the world. It is highly mathematical and takes many years to master.
Tala is a rhythmic cycle made up of beats. It is similar to the concept of a measure. In South Indian Carnatic music, the rhythmic cycle can range from 3 beats to 29 beats. The rhythm is counted with a series of claps, waves, and finger movements to set the beat.
There are 3 basic units which can be combined to create a tala cycle.
Anudrutam contains one beat. Counted by one clap of the hand.
Drutam contains 2 beats. Counted by a clap, followed by a wave of the hand (or a clap with the same hand palm up)
Laghu is a hand clap on the first beat, followed by a counting on the fingers. The number of beats can be 3, 4, 5, 7, or 9.