Friday, January 16, 2004

Mridangam Language

South Indian drumming has a language all of its own. For every sound produced by the mridangam, there is a corresponding syllable. These syllables, known as solkattu, are combined to form innumerable rhythms. The solkattu language becomes almost inseparable from the drumming itself.

One might assume, therefore, that one could assign a MIDI note for each syllable, and then use a mridangam sample of each syllable to play back these solkattu compositions. However, there is considerable flexibility in the system of interpreting the solkattu for the drums. For example, the syllable ta is used for 11 different strokes. Over the years, the solkattu system has evolved to serve as a structure for many different drums, and so many different interpretations are possible.

Playing Technique

The fingering technique is a very important consideration in a discussion pertaining to mridangam. The mridangam has a balance between the powerful and delicate techniques. A brief look at the history of the instrument shows why.

The evolution of mridangam may be traced to an archetypical mridang. This instrument had a close association to the ancient mythological dramas. This association meant that the drums would sometimes have to support both masculine and feminine characters. The delicate movements of the dance are known as lasya while the more powerful masculine movements are known as tandava. Powerful techniques were developed to accentuate the masculine roles while delicate techniques were developed to support the feminine roles.

In the last several centuries the drumming technique in north Indian music has bifurcated. The more powerful and aggressive techniques have been relegated to the pakhawaj while the delicate techniques have been relegated to tabla. Yet there was no bifurcation of technique in the South. The powerful and aggressive techniques exist alongside the delicate.

The mridangam is played primarily by using the index, middle, ring and small fingers of both hands while the thumb finger is used as a support element. The palm of the right hand is also used mainly while playing the stroke "plam or jham". To play the strokes "nam" and "dhim", it should be kept in mind that when the index finger is used to play these strokes, the ring finger should always be positioned in between the outer rim and the inner black ring on the right side of the mridangam (fig.1). The stroke "thi" is played by using the middle, ring and small fingers of the right hand in the centre of the black area on the right side of the mridangam but it should be noted that these three fingers should be held together while playing this stroke. Even while playing the stroke "jham", these three fingers should be held together. The stroke "ta" is played by using the index finger of the right hand at the centre of the black area on the right side of the mridangam.

Mainly two strokes are played on the left side of the mridangam. These are "thom" and "tha". "Thom" is played by using the middle, ring and small fingers of the left hand and these three fingers should be held together while playing Another technique involved in playing the mridangam is the use of "Gumki". It is played on the left side of the mridangam and is played instead of playing "Thom". One can produce subtle and soothing sound using Gumki which is played using the lower part of the palm and the middle and fore fingers of the left hand.this stroke. "Tha" is played by using the four fingers other than the thumb finger and again these four fingers should be held together.

Mridangam - History

The origin of mridangam goes back to the Indian mythologies wherein it is stated that Lord Nandi (the Bull God), who was the escort of Lord Shiva was a master percussionist and used to play the mridangam during the performance of the " Taandav " dance by Lord Shiva. Another myth adds that that the mridangam apparently was created because an instrument was needed that could recreate the sound of Indra (the Hindu counterpart of Zeus king of Gods) as he moved through the heavens on his elephant Airavata. That is why mridangam is called the 'Deva Vaadyam' or the instrument of the Lords.

Indian music, like every other aspect of Indian culture, reflects centuries of influences and changes wrought during its 3,000 years of recorded history with the immigration of the Aryans from Central Asia in the second millennium B.C. to Islamic invasion in the 12 century B.C. and the British rule from the seventeenth to the twentieth century. With each group came new cultural ideas and technical innovations, and with the passage of time, the new ideas were absorbed and assimilated, emerging finally in an undeniably Indian synthesis. In music this synthesis can be seen in the relationship between ragas (expressive modes) of India and those of the Middle East (the Islamic influence) as also in the talas (cycle of beats).

Indian music, classical, folk or popular, thus reflects layers of metamorphosis. It includes the two styles of classical music - North India's melodious Hindusthani music and the intricate Carnatic Sangeetham of South India. India can be said to be a country of countries; its diversity of languages, religions, cultures, and traditions have no parallel example anywhere in the world. Indian musical instruments in the same manner are very diverse in nature.

Most of the Indian musical instruments have evolved over centuries. Each instrument has its own history behind its evolution. In Indian culture's early stages, artifacts, musical instruments, and lifestyles were simple and basic in nature. Example: all tribal instruments are basic rhythm instruments and never complex instruments having a capacity to produce a range of octaves. As a society progressed, the demands on musical instruments arose. Thus, most Indian instruments, although having started in simple forms, because of a long period of evolution, have now become exquisite instruments capable of producing a varied pitch and range of octaves.

Musical instruments, according to ancient works, have been divided into four types. Thatha, Avanaddha, Sushira and Ghana which are Chordophones, Membranophones, Aerophones and Idiophones respectively. The mridangam belongs to the percussion family and has been played by Indians for more than 2000 years. It consists of a wooden shell approximately 27 inches long, covered with stretched skins on each side. It is famous for its distinctive buzzing sound and is used extensively for dance performances. Mythologically it is believed that God himself created tabla by cutting the mridangam into half.


The mridangam is the classical double sided drum of South India and is used as an accompaniment for vocal, instrumental and dance performances. The term mridangam is derived from the sanskrit words "Mrid Ang" which literally means "Clay-Body," indicating that it was originally made of clay.

The present day mridangam is made of a single block of wood. It is made either of Jackwood or Redwood. Jackwood has more fibrous structure than the other types of wood.The packing of the fibres is also very high.The pores present in jackwood is less when compared to others. The pore size and distribution of the material can be inversely proportional to the modulus of the wood.the density of jackwood is also less when compared to other woods.

The right head is made of three concentric layers of skin. The innermost layer is not visible. The outer ring is called the Meetu thol and the inner ring is called the Chapu thol. The inner ring is made of sheepskin and the outer skin is made of calf-hide. At the center of the right head is a permanent spot of black paste. This spot, called the Soru, is a mixture of boiled rice, manganese and iron filings. This black spot is responsible for the special tone of the mridangam allowing emission of harmonics. Different harmonics of the head are produced by various finger combinations.

The left head, known as the 'Toppi' is made of only two layers; the inner one is made of sheepskin and the outer one is made of buffalo hide. Before playing the mridangam, a thick paste made of semolina (sooji) and water is applied to the center of this head. This is done to lower the pitch and produce a bass sound on the left head. This paste is scraped off after the performance. The right head is tuned to the Tonic. On the rims of the two heads there are spaces for the leather braces to pass through. A small, smooth stone and a small stick (wooden) are used to vary the pitch of the heads by upward or downward strokes on the rims. The pitch of the mridangam varies according to its size. The larger the mridangam, the lower the pitch and vice versa. The walls of the instrument are 2/3 centimeters thick and give it stability in the low frequencies.

Music Expressions

What is Art if it cannot be expressed? What are the unique ways in which Carnatic music can be expressed?

As is the case with most other systems of the world, Carnatic music also uses the human voice as well as several instruments of both Indian and Western origin. As already stated in the introductory section, there is an amazing open-mindedness when in comes to adopting good things from other systems. Several instruments like the violin, mandolin, guitar and the saxophone have been adopted successfully, of course, with a few modifications to suit the requirements of Carnatic music.

Of the innumerable instruments developed by man, very few can match the most natural instrument - the voice. Carnatic music gives pride of place to Vocal music. This is because vocal music has the added dimension of lyrics, which is one of the basic components of Carnatic music. A vocalist can project the lyrics and the theme of the music the best. Even the melody instruments try to approximate to vocal standards. Hence, a student interested in instrumental music career generally learns vocal first and then repeats the music on the instrument.

Singing can be defined as the musical expression of feeling through the medium of vocal organs and the organs of speech. The technique of voice production for singing is more complex than it is for speech, as this requires the control of three sets of muscles - inspiration and expiration (respiratory muscles), phonation (intra and extra-laryngeal muscles) and those of articulation (muscles of tongue, jaw, lips and soft palate).

A Carnatic vocalist is expected to possess a voice that is rich in tone and volume, has depth and is capable of sustaining different notes for a long periods without any wobble. He/she must also possess a range of at least two and a half octaves and execute with clarity and verve, phrases of different tempo. The various embellishments or ornamentations (gamakas) and tonal shades should be aptly produced for rendering different types of musical compositions and other creative aspects of Carnatic music. The technical exercises and compositions of Carnatic music are designed to impart all the above. Of course, the student must have the right attitude, technical guidance and perseverance!

Artist's Task

"You know, sometimes it is the artist's task to find out howmuch music you can still make with what you have left."

On Nov. 18, 1995, Itzhak Perlman, the violinist, came onstage to give a concert at Avery Fisher Hall at LincolnCenter in New York City. If you have ever been to a Perlmanconcert, you know that getting on stage is no smallachievement for him. He was stricken with polio as a child,and so he has braces on both legs and walks with the aid oftwo crutches. To see him walk across the stage one step ata time, painfully and slowly, is an unforgettable sight. Hewalks painfully, yet majestically, until he reaches his chair.Then he sits down, slowly, puts his crutches on the floor,undoes the clasps on his legs, tucks one foot back andextends the other foot forward. Then he bends down andpicks up the violin, puts it under his chin, nods to theconductor and proceeds to play. By now, the audience isused to this ritual. They sit quietly while he makes hisway across the stage to his chair. They remain reverentlysilent while he undoes the clasps on his legs.

They wait until he is ready to play.

But this time, something went wrong. Just as he finishedthe first few bars, one of the strings on his violin broke.You could hear it snap - it went off like gunfire across theroom. There was no mistaking what that sound meant. Therewas no mistaking what he had to do. People who were therethat night thought to themselves: We figured that he wouldhave to get up, put on the clasps again, pick up the crutchesand limp his way off stage, to either find another violin orelse find another string for this one. But he didn't.

Instead, he waited a moment, closed his eyes and thensignaled the conductor to begin again. The orchestra began,and he played from where he had left off. And he played withsuch passion and such power and such purity as we had neverheard before. Of course, anyone knows that it is impossibleto play a symphonic work with just three strings. I know that,and you know that, but that night Itzhak Perlman refused toacknowledge that. You could see him modulating, changing,recomposing the piece in his head. At one point, it soundedlike he was de-tuning the strings to get new sounds from themthat they had never made before.

When he finished, there was an awesome silence in the room.And then people rose and cheered. There was an extraordinaryoutburst of applause from every corner of the auditorium. Wewere all on our feet, screaming and cheering, doing everythingwe could to show how much we appreciated what he had done.He smiled, wiped the sweat from this brow, raised his bow toquiet us, and then he said, not boastfully but in a quiet,pensive, reverent tone, "You know, sometimes it is the artist's task to find out howmuch music you can still make with what you have left."

What a powerful line that is. It has stayed in my mind eversince I heard it. And who knows? Perhaps that is the way oflife - not just for artists but for all of us. So, perhapsour task in this shaky, fast-changing, bewildering world inwhich we live is to make music, at first with all that wehave and then, when that is no longer possible, to still makemusic with all that we have left.

Thursday, January 15, 2004

The Sounds of Silence

John Cage and 4'33"

The first performance of John Cage's 4'33" created a scandal. Written in 1952, it is Cage's most notorious composition, his so-called "silent piece". The piece consists of four minutes and thirty-three seconds in which the performer plays nothing. At the premiere some listeners were unaware that they had heard anything at all. It was first performed by the young pianist David Tudor at Woodstock, New York, on August 29, 1952, for an audience supporting the Benefit Artists Welfare Fund -- an audience that supported contemporary art. More Details>>

Sunday, January 11, 2004

Full of Jargon

anga namesymbolaksharakaalasmovement
anudrutamU1beat with palm
drutam02beat with palm + turn (wave)
druta viramamU03 (2 + 1)drutam + anudrutam
laghu|(#)4 (or 3,5,7,9)beat + finger counts
laghu viramamU|5 (4+1)laghu + anudrutam
laghu drutam0|6 (4+2)laghu + drutam
laghudruta viramamU0|7 (4+2+1)laghu + drutam + anudrutam
guru88wave to left and rightor circle with thumb-up
guru viramamU88 (8+1)guru + anudrutam
guru drutam0810 (8+2)guru + drutam
gurudruta viramamU0811 (8+2+1)guru + drutam + anudrutam
plutam|812 (8+4)beat + wave to sides
pluta viramamU|813 (12+1)plutam + anudrutam
pluta drutam0|814 (12+2)plutam + drutam
pluta druta viramamU0|815 (12+2+1)plutam + drutam + anudrutam
kaakapaadam+16beat plus wave up and to sides

Percussion, Rhythm, and TaaLam

The mridangam artist is an expert at keeping the taaLam correctly and will often indicate the samam of the taaLam or the beginning of a musical phrase by movement in addition to showing the sequence of beats. Carnatic rhythm may be complicated but by practice in keeping taaLam to music correctly and understanding the underlying principles, it can be very satisfying to appreciate the melody as well as the rhythm of the music.

KaLai & EDuppu

Another term is kaLai, which refers to using multiple beats in one beat. Thus 2nd kaLai of aadi taaLam will use 2 beats for every one beat of the taaLam. This is noticeable in the speed of the song and the length of the aavartanam (cycle of the taaLam).

EDuppuIn some cases, the taaLam doesn't "begin" on the beginning of the first beat (called the samam). It may begin just 1/2 beat before or after, or 1 1/2 beat after, for example. The place where a particular section of a song (anupallavi, pallavi, or charaNam) begins in the taaLam is called the graham or eDuppu.

m u s i c

Music is an extremely subjective, aural experience. Some sounds are perceived by us as pleasant and some others as unpleasant. What is considered pleasant or unpleasant can be quite personal, based on our specific culture, exposure to particular kinds of music and perhaps even on what our parents told us. A song could be a major hit in one country and could be completely disliked and ignored in some other country. Our musical tastes are indeed developed. As we grow up, and discover music from other cultures or newer musical styles, our tastes too change. Sometimes, we even discover a pleasant piece of music purely by accident - because it simply happened to resonate with our inner sensibilities. Oh, nothing like self discovery ! Or Can we say
Minute Understanding Of Sound In Creation
An equally interesting exercise - think of five songs you really like. Can you explain why you like them or what is in common with all of them ? Can you 'explain' and define your musical taste ? Unfortunately, however much analysis one does, in terms of frequencies and so forth, it finally boils down to psychological factors when it comes to music and taste. Analysis is merely a tool to understand some of its structure. It can never explain why some musical sounds are deemed 'romantic' or 'harsh' or why some ragam is an evening ragam (if you believe in such things). Such mystique about music will come back to haunt us and will forever prevent us from understanding its totality in an objective manner.

Marga & Chanda Talams

Apart from the desi talas, there are other set of talas called "Marga Talas". These talas, in addition to the angams in the desi talas - laghu, drtham and anudrtham have other angams called Guru, Plutham, Kakapadam. The 108 talas and other groups of talas come under this group.

1 Guru - 1 beat and counting 7 fingers
1 Plutham - 1 beat, 1 krshyai & 1 sarpini
1 Kakapadam - 1 beat, 1 krshyai, 1 sarpini & 1 pathakam
1 krshyai - waving the hand towards left, it has 4 aksharams
1 sarpini - waving the hand towards right, it has 4 aksharams
1 pathakam - raising the hand vertically, has 4 aksharams

These talas are complicated and are found in very few compositions. In fact, the music of Tamils in ancient times had complicated rythm patterns like Chandha talam. Rythm was given importance. The Thiruppugazh is a classic example of the variety and complex nature of tala pattern in Carnatic music. The uniqueness of this tala lies in the fact that it varies according to the stress and rhyme-patterns (called Chanda) in the Tiruppugazh.

An example of a tala that uses all the units mentioned so far is Simhanandana tala, the longest tala, with 128 units.

Anaagatha - Atheetha

what more complexity you want?

There is another aspect of taalam which merits attention - the starting point of the song in relation to the taalam or the eduppu as it is called. Many songs start simultaneously with the beat and this is termed as sama eduppu indicating that the start is level with the taalam. Often, the song starts after the taalam is started, leaving an empty rhythm pattern at the beginning. This gap allows the singer and the instrumentalist a greater freedom in improvisation. This is indicated by the term anaagatha eduppu. Sometimes, the song starts before the beat and this is termed atheetha eduppu. This construction is often used to add a one or two syllable prefix (eg. Hari, Sri, Amba) to the text of the melodic line. A peculiar eduppu is associated with a taalam called Desadi taalam. Though this taalam actually consists of four movements, each of two aksharam duration, it is customary to keep pace for this taalam using simple Aadi taalam. Then, the eduppu is at one and half aksharams from the start of the taalam or three eighths way into the laghu. An example for Desadi eduppu is the song 'Bantu reethi kolu iya vayya Raama' in the ragam Hamsanaadham.

Prominent Talas

  • Adi Tala: It has eight counts per cycle. It is rendered with a beat and three finger counts followed by two identical sets of a beat and a wave. (In technical terms, this is nothing but Chaturasra jati Triputa tala, i.e., Chaturasra laghu and 2 drutams)
  • Roopaka Tala: Six counts but only 3 units are rendered externally. (An anudrutam and a drutam)
  • Misra Chapu: Seven units. (Three beats in the ratio of 3:2:2)
  • Khanda Chapu: Five units. (Three beats in the ratio of 2:1:2)
  • Its 175 now ;-)

    It's once again a simple extension of the 7 and 35-tala concepts. Let's use the same example given above, Dhruva tala. Now we already know that it can be of five different jatis. Suppose we specify the Jaati as Chaturasra, let's see how the gati can affect it.
    We know that the Chaturasra Jaati Dhruva tala has an external count of 14. However, while rendering the tala, how are we to ensure that the time-interval between each beat is uniform? This is where we introduce Gati. Now, we could have a fixed interval of 4, 3, 7, 5 or 9 counts between each beat. Let's take the example of Chaturasra Jaati dhruva tala with an interval of 4 units per beat, i.e. Chaturasra gati. The external count of 14 is multiplied by 4 (gati units) and we get a total of 56 internal counts for the tala. The same would change to 42 in Tisra Gati (14*3). In other words, each of the 35 talas can be rendered in any of the 5 different gatis. Thus the 35-talas become 175 (35*5).

    Yet another Jargon - Gati

    Gati refers to a specific but fixed time-interval between any two beats within a tala. It can again be of five types: Chaturasra, Tisra, Misra, Khanda and Sankeerna.
    The important thing to remember here is that the common names for the types of Jaati and Gati are only indicators of the values 4, 3, 7, 5 and 9. Whereas Jaati refers to the external finger-counting, Gati refers to the internal count between beats in the tala-cycle. Jaati gives a structure to the tala and Gati determines the gait of the tala.

    How come 35 Taalas then?

    Basically the 35-talas are an extension of the Sapta talas. The only element that changes is the Laghu. We already came across the fact that a laghu has five Jaatis (Chaturasra, Tisra, Misra, Khanda and Sankeerna). By incorporating that, we get a total of 35 varieties (7 Talas * 5 Jaatis). For instance, consider Dhruva tala with a Chaturasra laghu. A Chaturasra jaati dhruva tala would have a Chaturasra laghu followed by a dhrutam and two more Chaturasra laghus (It would be represented as I 4 0 I 4 I 4, the 4 near the laghu indicating a Chaturasra laghu). So we get an external count of 14 beats in all (4+2+4+4). Now the same Dhruva tala could have a Tisra laghu, in which case, we render a Tisra laghu instead of a Chaturasra laghu and thereby get a total external count of 11 beats (3+2+3+3) (This would be represented as I 3 0 I 3 I 3, the 3 representing the Tisra laghu). This is applied to all the other talas in a similar fashion. The important thing to be remembered is that it is always advisable to specify the Jaati (type) of the laghu to avoid confusion.

    Saptha Talas

  • Dhruva tala: Comprises a laghu, a drutam followed by two more laghus. It is represented by the symbol - l O l l
  • Mathya tala: Consists of a laghu, a drutam followed by another laghu. Symbol - l O l
  • Roopaka tala: Consists of a drutam followed by a laghu. Symbol - O l
  • Jhampa tala: Comprises a laghu followed by an anudrutam and a drutam. Symbol - l U O
  • Triputa tala: Consists of a laghu followed by two drutams. Symbol - l O O
  • Ata tala: Consists of two laghus followed by two drutams. Symbol - l l O O
  • Eka tala: Consists of just a laghu. Symbol - l
  • The Tala System

    The soundness of a system, primarily mathematical in character, consists of its internal coherency, logical rigidity and numeric accuracy. The tala system in Carnatic music satisfies all these conditions and is not only perfect but also beautifully elastic.

    There are six parts (Angas - limbs) of a tala but the following three are used more frequently:
    U - Anudrutham, A beat, represented by the symbol "U". This is physically represented as 1 unit
    0 - Drutham, A beat and a wave of the hand, represented by the symbol "O". This is physically represented as 2 Unit.
    | - Laghu, A beat followed by finger counts starting from the little finger. It is represented by the symbol "l". Laghu can be of five types (Jaati) depending on the number of units.


    Chaturasra (Jaati) laghu has a beat plus 3 finger counts, which is a total of 4 units.
    Tisra (Jaati) laghu has 3 units i.e. a beat plus 2 finger counts.
    Misra (Jaati) laghu has 7 units, i.e. a beat plus six finger counts.
    Khanda (Jaati) laghu has 5 units, i.e. a beat plus four finger counts.
    Sankeerna (Jaati) laghu has 9 units, i.e. beat plus eight finger counts.

    Rhythmic Aspects

    The rhythmic aspects in Carnatic music are arguably among the most developed and sophisticated across the world. The patterns range from the simple to the complex. The study of rhythmic aspects involves understanding the terms Tala and Laya.

    Tala and Laya
    Tala is often confused with Laya. Laya refers to the inherent rhythm in anything. Irrespective of whether it is demonstrated or not, it is always present. This can be better illustrated with an example. We know that the sun, the planets and other heavenly bodies are moving objects. Even as our earth rotates on its axis and revolves around the sun, these bodies have their own fixed movements and speeds. Even a microscopic disturbance in that speed may lead to disasters of huge proportions. So laya can be explained as the primordial orderliness of movements. Expression of laya in an organised fashion through fixed time cycles is known as Tala. Thus it serves as the structured rhythmic meter to measure musical time-intervals. Tala in Carnatic music is usually expressed physically by the musician through accented beats and unaccented finger counts or a wave of the hand. In other words, Tala is but a mere scale taken for the sake of convenience.