Developments In The Art Of Percussion And Laya In The Past Five Decades

by Mridanga Vidwan, Mridanga Kalaa Shiromani
T. V. Gopalakrishnan

To begin with, let us have a bird's eye view of the musicological history. As is known, all that could be mentioned about Laya, Tala, Vadya and their performance were laid down in Bharatha's Natyasastra and the Tamil works in Silapppadikiram, Panchamarabu etc. The later musicological works in Sanskrit and other Northern languages are mainly the echoes of Bharatha and the Tamil works reflected from Silappadikaram. There have been mention of the Avanadha Vadya Kutapam (Percussion Ensemble) in Sangita Ratnakaram itself. Making the percussion instruments, playing techniques, when, what, how and which instruments of play have been well defined and specified in Natyasastra.

But there has been a void between the 13th and 16th Century in the real art of performing. We hear of the mridangam, tabla, dholak etc. along with the Naik rulers in the Tanjore and allied Royal courts and also the Travancore palace. The most memorable names are that of Narayanaswamy Appa, Azhagan Nambi Pillai, Nannu Mian Dholak, etc. The contribution of Nadaswaram, Thavil, Chinna Melam and Periamelam in Tamil Nadu in the realm of percussion is astounding. Till the turn of the century, percussion was discussed as a part of music and dance or as contests in the Sadas of Rajahs and Zamindars.

The advent of Sabha Ganam or concert music and the appearance of great Laya Vadya Exponents created new revolution in the art of percussion in South India.

Starting with Narayanaswamy Appa who brought a great sense of aesthetics, sweetness and inspiration by his mridangam accompaniment to his own vocal music in his Saturday bhajans, the art of mridangam accompaniment was developed by the mellifluous Azhagan Nambi Pillai who was famed for his 2-3 minutes short Thanis after each big Kriti. In the words of the all time mridangam phenomenon and wonder, the Late Palghat Mani Iyer, the Laya Jnana of Pudukkotai Manpoondia Pillai and his worthy disciple - Dakshinamoorthy Pillai, made the contemporary music concerts, occasions to remember and cherish. Also the schools of percussion bifurcated as the Tanjore bani & Pudukkotai bani with the school developed by Pazhani Muthiah Pillai (also a disciple of Manpoondia Pillai) and the great left handed maestro Pazhani Subramanya Pillai. There were the other schools of percussion like the Andhra, Mysore and Kerala.

The developments in the last 5 decades and over could be classified as follows:

  • Area of accompaniment

  • Area of Taniavarthanam or Laya vadya ensemble

  • Area of creative percussion and playing techniques

  • Area of developing the instrument and experimentation

Prior to Narayanaswamy Appa, the accompanists especially percussion and talam stood or sat behind the main musicians while performing. Only because Narayanaswamy Appa sang and accompanied himself on the mridangam, he used to be allowed to sit along with the main artist. Later this tradition was acccepted. The percussionist had only a minor role to play. Just keep the tekka and provide 1/4 avartha or 1/2 avartha aruthis and teermanams during the kriti and at the end. Tani avarthanams were not a regular feature. With Azhagan Nambi Pillai, Mylattur Krishna Iyer, Das Swamigal, Manpoondia Pillai, Tanjavur Vaidyanatha Iyer (the illustrious teacher of Palghat Mani Iyer and T. K. Murthy) and a host of others, the mridangam rose in stature and slowly the vocalists and instrumentalists as also the rasikas began to expect more from the percussionists.

There are a sufficient number of gramaphone records - for us to have some authentic material to compare notes with the further developments and also first hand evidence of people who had the good fortune to hear the great maestros and who are still performing.

Now let us take up the different aspects for detailed review:

Area of Accompaniment 

The percussion accompaniment continued to follow the age-old traditions except when intricate and creative pallavis were sung in competitions where the percussionists and other accompanists gave good account of themselves when challenged.

After Narayanaswamy Appa's advent, mridangam accompaniment became noticeable as he sat on a par on the right side of the main artist and not behind him or her. The trend of keeping chouka (slow) kala tekka for the Pallavi, Madhyama kala sarvalaghu (running patterns) for the Anupallavi/Charana Pallavi and chouka for Charanam was formulated and perfected by him.Even today, this has great relevance. Myllattur krishna Iyer and Pudukkotai Dakshnamurthy Pillai innovated a great deal in these tekkas. They started the trend of improvising according to situations and artists individually which in itself added great colour to the concerts.

Dakshinamoorthy Pillai was most circumspect and careful when he accompanied and naturally one could hear superlative music and percussion. Naina Pillai was a unique vidwan with equal command over Laya, Sahitya, Raga and the art of performance and a great Upasaka. His concerts were a veritable battlefield - with many upavadyams thrown into fray. all this happened at a time when there had been no great changes in the playing techniques - only few sollus were often used - few korvais - most korvais and theermanams were common reportoire.

The meteoric rise of Palghat Mani Iyer in this horizon made a great revolution in the aspect of accompaniment as also in other aspects. but in the area of accompaniment he stands the tallest for all times. His acute awareness of the singers' or the instrumentalists' micro - second level nuances - his acute sense of the particular situation or context of a sangathi/sahitya or even a vocal accent, and how he responded to it with his mridangam play or even very sensible silence - this heralded a new era of percussion. There were also other great players who were great accompanists like Vaikom Krishna Iyer and his disciple Venkappan Pillai from Kerala who had added similar initiatives in their accompaniments earlier to Mani Iyer but to a much lesser degree.

The Pudukkotai style made fine by Pazhani Subamanya Pillai basically followed the tala and song accompaniment and highlighting mainly the rhythmic flow of the music and this was immensely pleasing and satisfying for many performers.

After these great maestros whom we heard, enjoyed and benefited, there has been a great improvement in the accompaniment aspects like question - answer or repeating the main artists' phrasings on percussion rhythmically and musically. Today's patterns of such rhythmic phrases and kuraippus are much more intricate, planned and executed very cleverly.

Thani Avarthanam - Talavadyam Ensemble

The popularity of Sabhaganam from the early decades of this century and expanding areas of public concerts in temples, marriages and festivals of savants and saints increased the entertainment value of concerts and the importance of long percussion interludes in four-hour or five-hour concerts. Another reason was the lack of any other form of cultural programmes.

In the later era, the concerts got shortened in time and thanis also naturally suffered in size. So the percussionists had to be more precise and to the  in the individual forays especially in the Radio etc. Now we have seperate oppurtunities for Laya Vinyasa or Tala Vadya Katcheris. Mani Iyer started the trend along with Pazhani Subramanya Pillai following suit. The earliest Laya Vadya record was given by T.V.Gopalakrishnan in the name Laya Madhuri with Tiruvanur Nagarajan on Ganjira and K.M.Vaidyanathan on Ghatam.

Vellore Ramabhadran gave a mridangam solo and later, others followed suit. But the trend for Thani Avarthanams in records was started by Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar. Thematic korvais and kuraippus became a fashion in the late fifties and sixties as also experimentations with starting the Thani straight with Tisra gathi or Khanda gathi, Mohras and korvais - ornamental and fancy arai aruthis or endings after the eduppu to the half avarthanam of the tala also were introduced by Mani Iyer and Pazhani Subramnya Pillai when they played together on mridangam and ganjira.

Area of Creative Percussion and Playing Techniques

The expanse of rhythmic possibilities became limitless with the improved playing techniques and the increasing influence of musical intellectuals in organising Laya Vinyasam. Mani Iyer played for the first time Tisra gathi camaflauged as Chatusram in his Thani - the listeners were stunned by the impact. He went on to play the Chatusra korvais in Tisra gathi (still not revealing the Tisra aspect) and the strokes were landing at odd places in the talam but coming to eduppu. Today it is a child's play for even novices. Mani Iyer later explained that if you repeat three times whatever you play will come to eduppu in Tisram - so one has to adjust the eduppu  if it is to be played once.

The Vilamba, Tisra and Madhyama kala korvais - tisra, madhyama, tisra korvais, trikala korvais all were improved upon with more intricate solfa patterns. The patterns were limited earlier mainly due to lack of application or use, also because of the playing techniques which gave more importance to tonal purity and clarity.So the fingers were always anchored on the skin faces and speed was not relevant. With changing styles, kutcheri format and fast briga voices, the playing techniques had to be improved. Fast and superfast patterns were executed with perfection by changing finger techniques. for the same solfa patterns involving nam, tharikita - the traditional fingers were used, the right forefinger for 'namthari', middle and ring together for 'tha' and forefinger for 'ri' (in some schools it is kita-thaka) but the fingerings hold good - (left, middle and ring together for 'ki' and right ring and middle for 'tha') but in the very fast rendition after 'nam' by forefinger, the middle finger alone for 'tha' and forefinger for 'ri' and middle finger for 'ki' and ring finger for 'tha' - this technique was originally used by Mani Iyer and later on we find that this is a very common way of playing fast passages in Tabla. But in mridangam this technique cannot produce audible and clear sound at all unless you have the perfect hand and finger balance to play hard and soft strokes.

 In the same manner techniques were evolved to use the left handd fingers to get janta and rpeat strokes on the left side or 'thoppi'. "Guguthari gugunaka tharikita" - "tharigugu" (repeats) with gumkaram instead of 'thom' (open) - this technique was easily played on the tavil with the stick without the hand getting tired, but with the folded middle and forefinger, one could generate equal volume of sounds. Mani Iyer, Pazhani Subramanya Pillai and Ramnad Murugabhoopathy were highly skilled at this and evolved individual styles. Venkappa Pillai of Alleppy had a perfect technique of using the left main toe to modulate the Gumkaram and play with the left fingers like the ganjira.Also Mani Iyer started the musical tone reproduction on the left like Sa, Pa, Sa etc.

Development of the Instrument and Experimentation

The mridangam of olden days (earliest part of the century) were smaller, with bigger surfaces. On the right 7 to 71/2 inches and on the left also 71/2 to 8 inches in diameter as the Sruthi (pitch) for male and female singers were almost same 41/2 to 51/2 (black 4 and 5) in the sruthi box or "F sharp" and "G sharp". Later, the pitches came down to 2, 11/2 and 1 and even less. Naturally the mridangams got bigger and longer in size but the right and left diameters got smaller. Dakshinamoorthy Pillai started the trend and later the other maestros followed suit. Trails with various woods, various skins continued. Mani Iyer preferred black coloured cow and goat leather for the right side and spotted goat skin for the left spread. Instruments were made in Raktha Chandanam, Ebony Rose wood, Maple, Mahgony, Red Cedar, Konnai and the regular pala or Jackwood and also the cheap and best wood called Kotukkapuli (a variety of Tamarind tree) which gives excellent resonance, ideal weight, fine finish and termite free. Also many ideas for tightening the both sides were tried, like the hook and spring method originally initiated by T.V.Gopalakrishnan in 1954 and abandoned as it hurt the fingers and palm. Karanai was tried on the left from good old days. Nowadays a special quality accoustic gum is also being used for the left side.

On the aspect of experimentation in rhythms - the interaction with Tabla maestros Pt. Kishan Mharaj, Shamtha Prasad and Allah Rakha started in the Mani Iyer and Pazhani era and also the rare test East-West meets with Western Jazz musicians like Dave Brubeck and Stan Gage with the above maestros helped to open up the receptivity of our Rasikas and musicians. T.V.Gopalakrishnan gave the first conceptual L.P. "Percussion thro' the ages" - tracing the evolution of South Indian or Carnatic Percussion with the Talavadya Kutchei included. Karaikudi Mani also presented an L.P. "Sruti Laya" and followed it up with concerts of sruti laya. Umayalpuram Sivaraman has also done many similar laya and music innovations.

All of us still continue to serve the cause of percussion in our own inimitable ways to promote and propagate the interest in percussion and the beauty of percussion in the generations to come