Musical Excellence of Mridangam
Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman, T. Ramasami & M.D. Naresh
In seven segments, three writers describe the mridangam, partly adapting ideas from
C.V. Raman's seminal paper...
Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman was yet to be born when C.V. Raman's famed theory on light won the Nobel Prize in 1930. A decade earlier, the music-inclined scientist had begun researching mridangam acoustics. Raman's love for Carnatic music obsessed him also with the dynamics of its chief percussion instrument, and he presented 20 papers on the subject.
A century later, world-class percussionist, U.K. Sivaraman, or UKS as he is popularly known, accompanied by scientists T. Ramaswami and M.D. Naresh, presents a well-studied book on the subject, titled Musical Excellence of Mridangam.
Give and take
The arts and sciences are not watertight compartments, so the book is an exercise in give and take. A highlight of the monograph is its establishing the mridangam's capability to produce 14 harmonics - those vibration-induced overtones accompanying the fundamental sound. This total is double what earlier works predicted. What's more, there is "convincing experimental proof" that the instrument's tonic note is rishabham. Thus, the second swara in the Carnatic scale sets the hierarchical reference for the others. This point, UKS says, is "most soul-satisfying".
In the book, UKS says that naadamor musical timbre is a metaphysical concept. Ramaswami, when asked about this in an interview that comes after the one with UKS, is respectful of the artiste's experiential opinion, but not necessarily in concurrence. Whether modern devices can simulate subjective sensations is "not clear at this stage," he responds diplomatically. Likening naadam to the immeasurability of the sense of wellbeing, the former secretary in the ministry of Science and Technology says that "more talented and informed" professionals should be able to gauge naadam at a later date.
From jackfruit wood
The book, in seven segments, describes the instrument, partly adapting from Raman's seminal paper in 1935. Jackfruit is the wood of traditional choice, which guarantees the right density, hardness and sound radiation. The parchments from goat and cow skin help support the tension between the membrane assemblies, while the minerals-mixed black patches facilitate the metallic tone fundamental to harmonics.
Of course, perfect fingering is key to tonal beauty. How to get it is the crux of the fifth chapter. Next is on the R&D of the conventional 12kg mridangam. It explains new-age fabrications of the instrument that could standardise construction by using alternative materials, if needed. For travelling performers, the instrument must also be compliant to certain countries' phytosanitary laws,where mandatory fumigation affects the mridangam's black patch.
Old versus new
A concluding 19-page article by K. Varadarangan speaks about the IITian's spectral studies that confirm the tonal similarity that his self-developed synthetic mridangam has with the traditional one in terms of harmonics. The new instrument is lightweight, long-lasting and has replaceable drumheads. This could render irrelevant certain age-old qualities attributed to Cauvery sand and Bengal goat that haunt the instrument. And also end the lamentation that "not many scientists followed Raman's line of thinking" on the mridangam.
For the average music buff, the opening conversation with UKS can be the best part of the book, which has a foreword by top chemist C.N.R. Rao and a commendation by Music Academy president N. Murali.