Mridangam is hailed as the ‘King of drums’ today as it is the product of years of experiments of our ancestors with the various rhythm and percussion instruments to get this most suited and refined instrument for classical Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam.
There have been references of an instrument such as modern mridangam in its stages of metamorphosis in the ancient past. Paintings in the Ajantha caves show the use of this instrument in the past. In the inscriptions at Lord Nataraja temple at Chidambaram, the sculpture with the name ‘lalaada thilakam’ an actor is seen accompanied by two musicians playing the mridangam.
STRUCTURE AND BUILT OF MRIDANGAM:
“Mrith” means mud and “angam” means body. As the body of the instrument was made of mud it got its present name. The instrument has seen a transformation and today’s mridangam is made out of a single wood piece of Jackwood or Teakwood. The right side of the instrument is covered with three layers of skin – the inner most with calf’s skin and the others with goat’ skin. A black paste is stuck in the middle of the skin with a hemispherical finish, which is composed of Magnesium, Tamarind syrup and boiled rice. This is called as “Soru”, “Karanai” or “Marundhu” etc. The left side of the instrument has two layers of skin, one of the buffalo and the other of goat. The two sides are fastened together with “Vaaru”, which is buffalo’s skin to keep the pitch of the instrument.
The legend holds that, Lord Siva danced to destroy ‘Tripura’ and only for the Lord the instrument of mridangam was created by Brahma and it was first played by Lord Ganapathy. ‘Mridangam’ was originally referred to as “Thannumai” in ancient times and perhaps was called by different names at different periods until it has reached the present form as we see it today.
NEED FOR MRIDANGAM IN BHARATANATYAM:
Though mridangam may be used for all classical dance forms, it has been associated with Bharatanatyam from time its inception and perhaps also with Kuchipudi today. This is because it is most suited to classical Carnatic music that is sung for Bharatanatyam. One may wonder that the mridangist has no big role to play in a Bharatanatyam recital as there is a ‘nattuvanar’ doing the ‘nattuvangam’ (playing the cymbals) which is not so in the case of a Carnatic-vocal music concert. Mridangam is an indispensable accompaniment for Bharatanatyam. Though the ‘nattuvanar’ plays the cymbals and also verbally expresses the ‘sollu’-s the mridangistsynchronises the dancer’s movements to the jathi and correspondingly to the song as a thread in a garland. The work of the nattuvanar and the mridangist may seem somewhat similar but I would say that the mridangist’s job is more complex. There is a wrong notion that mridangam playing for dance does not require expertise as everything is pre-set and practiced. This idea should be condemned as the dance mridangist needs to be equally qualified and equipped like a Carnatic classical vocal mridangist, if not more. The dance mridangist is expected to exhibit his knowledge and expertise within the limited framework of the time along with the job of embellishing the item.
Nuances of Mridangam in Bharatnatyam:
I. NAADHAM vs VIVAHAARAM:
* The primary duty cast upon the mridangist is to assist the dancer in establishing the context, theme, mood and aid in the audience joining the experience. Hence the playing should be in such a manner complimentary to the expressions, emotions and the movements of the dancer. If he wishes to show his individuality, there are places like ‘Aradhi’, ‘Shuddha nritham’, etc., where he can bring out his depth in knowledge. However, it should always be borne in mind that one is a mridangist accompanying a dancer.
* More than attempting to show your individuality by employing complex ‘jathis’ (expressions of rhythm) it will be advisable to play with ‘Naadham’ (finesse) what the dancer dances. This will surely gain more appreciation in the audience.
* Mathematics will surely be superseded by ‘Margam” gimmicks, with just deploying the nuance of the instrument here and there.
II. TRADITIONAL vs IMPROVISATION:
There is no coded tradition in playing mridangam for dance. Dance has seen a renaissance, so have the dance accompaniments. In fact, in the past the entire orchestra had to run behind the dancer and play, as it was tradition then. Today, we find that a separate platform is laid by the side of the stage, where the orchestra sits and accompanies the dancer at ease. We do not aim at killing tradition by improvisation, but only to add flavour to the item. The mridangist is at liberty to embellish the dance with his improvised playing. Imagination makes an artiste superior to any mundane person, so it can be said that there is no prohibition to using our imagination to suit the modern trends and tastes in helping the dancer to achieve the best possible ‘Rasa’.
III. FROM PUSHPAANJALI TO MANGALAM:
In a Bharatanatyam Margam, starting with the ‘Pushpaanjali which comprises of Salutations to God, Guru, the gathering and all present at the recital for the success of the programme, we go on to the ‘Alaarippu’ which is pure dance without expression, so the mridangam playing can be sharp and firm. Next comes the ‘Jatheeswaram‘ in which there is melody too but here again there are no expressions of emotions or any meaning conveyed by the dancer so mridangist has a chance to shine. The mridangist must give importance to the ‘Raagam’ and the movements of the dancer in this number. Next is the ‘Shabdam‘ where there are lyrics in the song and the dancer performs ‘abhinaya’ (expressions). Here the playing should be softened during the lyrics vis-à-vis ‘abhinaya’ portion. As usually a ‘Shabdam’ is in ‘Misrachapu Thaalam’, the various ‘nadai-s’ may be incorporated here. The ‘Varnam‘ is the most important and comprehensive number in a ‘Margam’, here there is ‘abhinaya’, jathi’, ‘swaram’, and above all lyrics concentrated on a definite theme or concept. To establish the ‘Rasa’ at its best, the mridangist has to play skilfully. There are places where he should abstain from playing, as ‘not playing’ betters playing certain times. ‘Varnam’ is followed by a ‘Padam‘ where the instrument should convey the mood of the item. Hence, generally the mridangist is supposed to know the meaning of lyrics and emotion exhibited in every song. ‘Javali‘ follows the ‘padam’ where the lighter expression should be borne in mind and the difference should reflect in the playing. ‘Tillana‘ comes as a finale to the ‘margam’ where the mridangam should join the crescendo of movements, expressions and emotions. The ‘Mangalam‘ is a formal end to the recital.