Mridangam, the king of drums, has been associated with classical music and dance from time immemorial, which is evident from the following verses: -
“SABDHO DHVANISCHA VARNASCHA MRIDANGAADI BHAVODHVANI,
SARVA SABDHO NIBHOVRUDDHI : CHROTHRO THPANLASTHU
As per the above verses, “Sruthi” and “Layam” are said to be the Father and Mother of ‘Sangeetham'. It is in the division of “Layam” that the skin instruments like ‘Mridangam' and ‘Shuddamaddalam' emerged. From ‘Sabdam' emerged ‘Dhvani' and ‘Varnam” (words) which were produced by the ‘Mridangam' and the allied instruments.
While my subject for scrutiny today is “nuances of mridangam for dance”, let me trace the trails, traverses and significance of the instrument in the past, before going into the subject.
“Thaalaa”, the soul of music and dance is the foundation for rhythm and consequently the rhythm instruments. Hence it is pertinent to see its birth. There are many interpretations on how the word “Thaalaa” was born, the following are a few among them: -
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 instruments to get this most suited and refined instrument for classical Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam. It is but true that the art form of Bharatanatyam has been associated with the land of the Tamils for time immemorial. More than eighty skin instruments were used for ancient dance concerts depending on the theme and requirement. We are able to see that all of them have been eliminated by this single instrument except a very few like Ghatam, Ganjira, etc. which only are ‘Upapakkavadhyams' in a recital which is obviously because of the class of this instrument.
Though mridangam has not been referred in the past by the term as it is known today, there have been references in the stages of metamorphosis of this instrument. 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.
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.
While dealing with the accompaniments for dance, especially the instruments, the famous Tamil poet llangovadigal says: -
“YAZHUM KUZHALUNCH CHEERUMIDARUM
THAZHKURAT THANNUMAI YADALODIVATRIN
According to the above, the music must be apt for the dance and the instruments best suited for dance are the melody instruments like veena and flute along with ‘softly played' “Thannumai”. Thus, “Thannumai”, here refers to the mridangam as it were then. Even in today's programmes one may observe that for padams, javelis and keertanais, when the dancer does the abhinaya, the nattuvangam and mridangam are played softly.
Sundaramurthy Nayanar comments :
THANNUMAI THAALAM VEENAI THAGUNICH CHANGINAI CHALLARI
KOKKARAI KUDAMUZHAVI NODISAI KUDI…AADUVEER”
The above verses depict the dance of Lord Siva. ‘Thannumai' is supposed to have been one of the most suited instruments for dance. It was tied around the waist or around the neck with the help of a ‘vaaru' (buffalo skin). This fact is evident from the sculpture at Thanjavur “Peruvudaiyar” temple, Kumbakonam Dharasuram temple, Thiruvarur Thyagesar temple and Chidambaram Natarajar temple. Hence, one could see that mridangam in its primitive form itself was used widely for dance despite the fact that there were several other skin instruments at that time.
There can be no south Indian temple without the sculptural carving of ‘Thannumai', the present day mridangam.
As aforesaid, there have been several rhythm instruments to support the dancer in the past and one can assert that today's mridangam is an unison of instruments and it carries the uniqueness of each instrument at its best, all of them put together.
NEED FOR MRIDANGAM IN BHARATANATYAM:
Though mridangam may be used for all classical dance forms, it has been associated with Bharatanatyam from time immemorial 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 mridangist synchronises 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 preset and practiced. This idea should be condemned as the dance mridangist need's 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.
I. NAADHAM vs VIVAHAARAM:
There is no coded tradition in playing mridangam for dance. Dance has seen a renaissance, so have the dance accompaniments. In fact, those were the days in the past when 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.' The ‘Alaarippu' is pure dance without expression, so the mridangam playing can be sharp and firm, Next comes the ‘Jatheeswaram' in which there is also melody but here again there are no expressions of emotions or any meaning conveyed by the dancer.
The mridangist must give importance to the ‘Raagam' and the movements of the dancer in this number. Next is the ‘Sabdam' 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 ‘sabdam' 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 should play skillfully. 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.
Before concluding, I would only say that in theory we may say so many things but what comes on stage at the time of performance may not even near our ideologies. One may certainly say these would help the performer to form a code or framework of playing and systematically help better oneself. The human brain is a creation, which is beyond the best, hence the outcome cannot be predicted. I have shared what little I have learnt and present this paper from the “strain of preparing it to the peace of presenting this” before you.