Mridangam Appreciation In A Carnatic Music Concert


                This article is inspired by the question "How does one appreciate a mridangam thani avartanam"? What is it that one looks for when an artist like Palghat R. Raghu, Karaikudi R. Mani or Umayalapuram K. Sivaraman is accompanying or performing a mridangam solo. Before I even start explaining the finer aspects of South Indian percussion drumming I want to make a disclaimer. I am not an authority on South Indian music but have adequate knowledge of the mridangam to explain the above question. The views expressed in this article are solely mine and do not reflect the impressions of any one artist. I shall continue posting to this group if their is positive response and feedback from readers.

The underlying theme for any music be it Indian or Western is melody and rythm. As the saying goes "Sruthi Mata, Laya Pita" attaining perfection in both these aspects inspires wonderful music. In Carnatic music their are five basic talams namely

1. Adi Talam (8 beat cycle)
2. Rupakam Talam (6 beat cycle)
3. Misra Chapu Talam (7 beat cycle)
4. Khanda Chapu Talam (5 beat cycle)
5. Sankeerna Chapu Talam (9 beat cycle)

Most thani avartanam's are in Adi talam. For the music rasika this talam is easy to grasp, for the artist the boundaries for improvisation are plenty. This in no way means that an avartanam in other talams are never performed. For a seasoned artist it is little concern which talam the thani is in. For the mridangam student it is always an eye opener when the thani is in a different talam. Adi talam also called Chatusra Jathi Triputa Talam consists of 8 beats. The counting of the talam is as follows. A clap followed by the counting of the small, ring and the middle finger, followed by a clap, a wave, another clap, & another wave. Each beat is subdivided into four pulses giving us 32 pulses in one cycle. If  we notate, it will look as follows :

  1      2      3       4      5      6      7      8
clap small ring middle clap wave clap wave

The first clap is called samam (base beat), the 2nd clap is called Arai samam indicating that 1/2 the cycle is completed. The 3rd clap is called Mukhal samam indicating that 3/4 of the cycle is completed and then we are back to base. Further each beat is subdivided into four pulses. A pulse is normally notated by a comma. Each four pulses in mridangam solukattu is said as Tha Ka Dhi Mi (T K D M)

 1    2   3   4   5   6    7   8
,,,, ,,,, ,,,, ,,,, ,,,, ,,,, ,,,, ,,,,
 TKDM .... TKDM .... TKDM .... TKDM

In a thani avartanam the following things have to be observed. Firstly the avartanam is split up into soukya kalam (slow/normal speed in which the main artist started the kirtanam), Madhyama Kalam (In between speed) and mail kalam (fast speed, double the normal speed). Other interesting things to be noted are Farans (finger movements that are brisk and short) Mohara (special pattern that preceeds the teermanam and an indicator that the thani is about to end) and finally the teermanam (a specific pattern that is played three times signifying the end of the thani) at which time the main artist picks up where he had left the kirtanam. The above terms Faran, Mohara, Teermanam are technical terms used by mridangists alike. All of the above form the basic body of the thani avartanam (Absolutely essential). Depending on the artist, his mood, the audience etc there may be one or more kannakku (mathematical permutation following some very strict guidelines) in the soukya kalam stage. These traditionally are signatures of specific artist. For the connoisseur rasika this forms the basis of saying who the accompanist is. If you are listening to a CD or a recorded tape just by hearing a few strokes one can recognize the artist. This is definitely true in the case of Palghat Mani Iyer, Palghat Raghu, Sivaraman, Karaikudi Mani, Vellore Ramabhadran, TK Murthy etc.

The transition from soukya kalam to mail kalam is madhyama kalam. The entry into madhyama kalam symbolizes that the first half of the thani is almost over. In the madhyama kalam the artist demonstrates his dexterity and control over the instrument by transitioning from Chatusram to Thisram (4 pulses to a beat to 3 pulses to a beat), from Thisram to Khandam (3 pulses to a beat to 5 pulses to a beat), from Khandam to Misram (5 pulses to a beat to 7 pulses to a beat), from Misram to Sankeernam (7 pulses to a beat to 9 pulses to a beat) and back to Chatusram. One thing to be noted though is that their is no hard and fast rule governing this transition. Once back to Chatusram he moves on to play various Farans and is now building up the speed for the grand finale. Once in the Faran stage one would not go back to madhyamam or soukya kalam. The artist is now in the mail kalam and plays anywhere from 6 to 10 different farans depending on his strength stamina etc. From here he moves on to play the Mohara, which is an indicator to the main artist to get ready. After the Mohara comes the teermanam played three times identically at the end of which the main artist picks up the kirtanam in the speed he had started and wraps up the song.

This traditionally would be how a thani avartanam is played. With this knowledge I request all you rasikas to go back and listen to various thani avartanams and see how much more you enjoy this part of drumming.

Hope this helps. Any feed back would be appreciated. If any of you netters out there have specific questions or would like me to discuss specific topics pertaining to Carnatic music that you would like answered please feel free to send me email.