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Mrdangam - the Celestial drum

Review by Dr. N. Ramanathan







Books on the subject of Mrdangam have started coming from the early part of 20th century. Initially the Mrdangam teachers brought out manuals on the Mrdangam lessons. Second half of the 20th century saw research and analysis of Mrdangam and its performance presented mainly by the foreign scholars. The present book is different in the sense that it comes from a Mrdangam artist who is also an Art Historian.

The book has profuse illustrations, namely, photographic reproductions of sculptures and painting representations of two- faced drum instruments. Exquisite photographs also decorate the borders of each page. The documentation starts from as early a period as 185 B.C. and cover a vast geographical region across the country including Ajanta, Sanchi, Badami, Khajuraho, Belur and Halebid, Konark, Chidambaram, Hampi and Lepakshi. There are also a few beautiful paintings taken from old manuscripts of literary works like the Kumarasambhava, Gita Govinda and the Hindi commentary on Sangitadarpana

The book commences with large volume of references, from literary and non-literary sources, on the origin of Mrdangam. The details about the construction of the instrument, art of Mrdangam accompaniment in music concert and brief notes on some of the famous artistes of the past form the core of the book. 

The biggest chapter is however on the ‘Science of Tala’ and describes the talas of ancient, medieval and modern periods and the aspects of tala traditionally collected under the head of Daúa-prâňa. Clear photographs of the making of the mrdangam and the various hand strokes add value to the book. The author has also gone into Karini, the black paste on the right side (pp.56-57), and given details of the sieve analysis which explains the production of the harmonic overtones on the right side, a study not met with in earlier books.

Although the book has a good get-up with very valuable illustrations,the subject could perhaps have been dealt with more incisively. While Mrdangam in particular refers to the instrument in use in the Karnataka system, it in many ways differs from the ‘Pakhavaja’ or the ‘Mrdanga’ of Hindustani. So when representations of two faced drums held horizontally and played, are cited in the book in general, then it is not certain whether any serious connection can be established between them and the present day South Indian one. 

In fact all the historical references could as well relate to the ‘Pakhavaja’ of Hindustani. Further, many of the verses cited from ancient texts have actually been taken from secondary sources. Detailed studies on other avanaddha vadya-s being already available the author could have concentrated on the present day Mrdangam alone. 

One also wonders why the author should have gone into the various tala systems in history. It is true that all the syllabic forms of Mrdangam are structured within the framework of a tala, a feature it shares with some forms in Karnataka music and some forms in Bharatanatyam dance. 

But mere description of tala-s without touching upon subject of which syllabic compositions relating to them were played within the tala framework, makes the information rather redundant. Similarly the description of Tala-dasa-prana-s without any reference to Avanddha-vadya-s except for some ‘jati-patterns’ cited in the context of Yati, makes the write up sound no different from a book on music. And further, most of the tala prana concepts have been given the same erroneous interpretations which are also seen in popular text books on Indian music. 

The author should have gone into how the Mrdangam compositions are organised within the tâla framework today. In fact like many of the earlier works on the subject this book too deals with Mrdangam as primarily an instrument for accompaniment, especially for Karnataka music. The art of ‘Vadya’, in particular denoting the syllabic structures of ‘avanaddha-vadya’ (membranophone), has existed for centuries in India. Vadya (syllabic form) along with Gita (melodic forms) and Nrtta (visual form created by the movement of the limbs of the body) has been a component of various kinds of theatrical arts. 

Further ‘vadya’ has on its own figured in solo performances. In Kerala, avanaddha-vadya-s like suddha-maddalam, Chenda and Idakka, usually in groups, have traditionally presented public performances displaying high level of artistry. Thus the absence of any write up on the solo playing or ‘Tani avartanam’ and the organisation underlying its presentation seems a lacuna. There are some errors in presentation. Mrdangam is an Avanaddha vadya and a Laya vadya but not a Talavadya (p.21). Again ‘Bhanda vadya’ derived from ‘bhanda’ meaning a vessel or drum and not from `bhan’ meaning sound (p.26). 

The author also cites many texts like Tala Lakshana of Kohala and Sangitavidyadarpanamu (p.64), Nandikesvara Karika (p.2) but these do not find mention in the bibliography. Some statements have been made without the basis having been established, as for instance, “The tala system of Carnatic music originated from the Ganavritta and Matravritta, musical and syllabic metres of Vedic mantras.” (p.66). 

While there are many commendable features in this book, the author could also consider improving certain aspects when she brings out the next edition. 

Mridangam: An Indian Classical Percussion Drum by Shreejayanthi Gopal, publisher B.R.Rhythms, Delhi 110052. Rs 350/- pp 120.

Dr. N. Ramanathan is a renowned musician and retired as the Principal of the Madras Music College, Chennai. 

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