Follow on


Mani on Maniyaana" Mridangam
How to appreciate Mridangam playing, other percussion instruments & the nuances & intricacies of Laya
- Karaikudi Mani

Yes, Mridangam playing is not just for "sogasu", but is also sokkajeyu Mridanga talamu ! Enthralling ! I say this with all pride having experienced a little of the immeasurable ocean of Laya & having befriended the divine instrument called the Mridangam.

Why Thani Avarthanam?
The other day a friend of mine, a senior Mridangam Vidwan, was very dejectedly saying that the vocalist had given him time to play the ThaniAvarthanam only after a full two & a half hours of singing & thus insulted him. We all know that for years the Thani avarthanam has been considered as an integral part of a concert like a raga, kruthi, neraval or swara. But of late the trend has drastically changed to push Thani Avarthanam towards the end, like a tail piece.

As we learn from our elders & scriptures, Thani Avarthanam has been given a great prominence, right from the days when a full concert pattern got evolved. The concert pattern itself has been there for about 100 years. Thani Avarthanam must have been equally old enough.

All along concerts are successful mainly due to the rhythmic support which is the life in a concert. But as we learn from History, the status & importance of Mridangam has been recognized only from Narayana Swamy Appa's period. Narayana Swamy Appa hailed from the southern Tamil Nadu & was a contemporary of the legendary Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan & Patnam Subramani Iyer.

Thani Avarthanam is an occasion when the percussion artists exhibit their skill, imagination & expertise in playing on their respective instruments. Like raga rendering, there is full freedom & scope for the laya Vidwan to aesthetically present the intricacies of Laya to the enjoyment of the audience which consists of both knowledgeable group & laymen.

When should a Thani Avarthanam be performed?
About 3 decades back, the time, kruthi & Thala of a Thani Avarthanam had been the choice of the Mridangist. Depending upon their physical condition, mood & the condition of the instrument, the mridangist would take up from the end of any kruthi with a kalapramanam that suits his mood & play his solo. There had been even two or three Thani Avarthanams in those days.

But today, the mridangist has to wait for the main artist's nod to begin his Thani Avarthanam at the latter's convenience. In the present day situation, Thani Avarthanam should be timed properly. It should not be timed later than a full one & a half hours. The artists who are technically sound yet physically not so, do require sufficient energy in store to present an easy & pleasing Thani. There are certain practical truths behind this claim.

Let us take the instrument first. In the early days scarcity was an unknown term. Every thing was in abundance. People did not have the necessity to go in for inferior goods. The Mridangam is basically made of the skins of animals namely the cow, goat, calf & buffalo. Though the skins are drawn from dead animals they had 'life'(jeevan). This was because the animals in those days had a rich nourishing fodder provided by nature. Their constitution was such that even after the animals were dead their skin proved to be full of 'life'.

Secondly, the labourers who were making the Mridangam were very sincere, highly skilled persons devoted to their jobs.

So, two good things, namely, the material & the labour put together, the result was high quality. The Mridangam had a sustained resonance throughout the concert without the help of an equalizer or an amplifier. Irrespective of the performing fingers & playing techniques of the performer, the mridangam was giving a divine "Naadham".

Thus even after three hours the artist could still carry on with the same instrument which had been 'friendly' to him to play a wonderful Thani. The high quality was maintained throughout the concert. But this situation is not to be seen now. The cattle nowadays eat posters, garbage & what not. They get only adulterated & contaminated fodder & water. So their body condition deteriorates & their skin loses its vitality.

There is a saying in Tamil, "Vallavanukku pullum ayudham", which means that for a knowledgeable person, even grass can become a weapon. Even if the material is bad the Mridangam maker can bring the best out of it. Unfortunately this is not the case now.

Nowadays, when everything is becoming commercialised, there is no winder that even Mridangam making has followed suit. If only the Mridangam Vidwan is conversant with the technique of making Mridangam, he can extract good work from the maker. But most of the current day Vidwans & students lack on this front. They are satisfied with whatever is done to their instrument for a beat out.

The Mridangam after accompanying the main artist, violin etc., gradually loses its quality half way though the concert. Apart from this, the mridangist has to cover up the deficiency in the tempo & control of thala of many of the main artists & co-accompanists. This adds to the trouble for a good Mridangam.

After two-and-a-half hours of playing, Mridangam loses its tonal quality. The mridangist becomes physically tired & exhausted. The audience too need a break after hearing continous music. They are thus forced to stretch or go out for a brief walk & refreshment. However great be the performer, the ability to make the audience sit through & enjoy the Thani, with all the above mentioned disadvantages around, is a big question mark.

Duration & Proportion of Thani
Forst of all the standard cannot be applied to all concerts & all artists. It will vary according to the total time of the concert, the singer's ability & the proficiency of the mridangist.

The mridangist who can impress upon, attract & create an impact on the audience with his genuine, tradition-based novel ideas with pleasing vibrations, rightly deserves a reasonable duration to present his expertise to the audience.

The singer must be a person who can understand & enjoy the performance. He should delegently put the Thala for the Thani. The audience will also be automatically drawn in to the enthusiasm. To make it possible, the mridangist must be s very capable person who can sense the pulse of the singer, his weakness & the mood of the audience. In such a situation a full 30 to 40 minutes of Thani will not be boring but enjoyable.

But in the present day situation those having not enough high standard but can manage with a well tuned instrument & be accommodative to the fancies of the vocalists are preferred more. What can we expect of these substandard performers? But they have their own reasons. They feel that if they do not confine to the limits imposed by the center performer & give vent to their knoledge taking reasonable time, they may not be engaged for futur concerts.

This tendency of voluntary suppression of talent for years leaves them without proper identity. Since they are professionals they are forced to accept such compulsions. Every artist who has given his soul & heart for nurturing his talents must have freedom of expression at the first instance. For years they toil creating some original aesthetic rhythm not for self enjoyment alone but also for presentation to the general public.

Another question one has to consider here is whether the center performer really likes the mridangist getting special attention from the audience. Many of the center performers would signal the mridangist or keep staring at their watches to indicate him to shorten his Thani. Some even do this explicitly. They would claim that it makes their throat dry to sit quiet for half an hour & would not be able to sing with the same power after the Thani.

A true professional would not like to control the freedom of expression of another. It is saddening to note that some of these enter performers extend the same treatment to even established percussionists An established artist who presents tradition based, acceptable innovations has to be respected & allowed to present the same to the audience. Then only true professional atmosphere would prevail. Music cannot be monopolised in concert platforms. We should also note that in Carnatic music a performer will have more of mental strain than physical. Mental strain will not tire a performer but physical strain will certainly prevent him from giving the required effect. Even today we see that while accompanying some artists even for three full hours you will not fell tired physically, while accompanying some others, one would be totally exhausted within the first half an hour.

To say something more on the duration of Thani, it is said that the great Plaghat Mani Iyer used to say " what is there to play in a thani beyond ten minutes?" But we should wee the period of his statement. It was during his last years. Firstly, it has come out of his experience. Second factor is ageing. So without seeing the time & context of his statement we cannot use it to criticize the rest. Because, I have listened to Sri Mani Iyer playing Thani for 30 minutes & 40 minutes in his prime time. He has also played 2 to 3 Thani Avarthanams in a single concert, each for about 6-7 minutes. So to say that there is nothing to play beyond 10 minutes is unacceptable.

Good Thala maintenance a prerequisite for center performer
A professional singer has to be strong in Laya control. But some musicians are performing without realising the gravity of this prerequisite. While accompanying such musicians the accompanists have to make good the deficiency by not indulging in complicated exercises for too long & perform a short Thani with easy patterns technically called Sarvalaghu. The term Sarvalaghu itself is wrongly used to describe a style or generally an unobtrusive pattern. Sarvalaghu is not a distinct pattern possessed only by some but is present in everybody's performance. Sarvalaghu can be in any gathi or nadai, namely, Cahturashram, Thrishram, Kandam, Mishram or Sankeernam. Sarvalagu can also be complicated. Every performance is interwoven with Sarvalaghus. Thus when accompanying a musician who is not very sound in Layam, he should not be put in embarrassment by playing complicated intricacies. A mridangist should be satisfied with simple patterns for a short duration in such circumstances.

Mere sound is not Layam!
Nobody goes to concert to enjoy just sound however pleasing it may be. Creativity & aesthetic sense are a must for any music. A concert shouldprovide a mridangist a good opportunity to present his creativity & aesthetic sense.

I have been saying for quite some time that to experience the magnificence of Layam, audience are yet to be educated. They cannot identify what is being played in a Thani as they identify a Raga or Krithi. The same Ragas or Krithis they have become familiar with for years are easily identified. As for the Laya section, theycan, at the most, say that the Mridangam had a good tonal quality, it was electrifying, vibrating, scintillating, etc. But they cannot realise the content. We should accpt thst only from the times of Pudukottai Dhakshinamoorthy Pillai, Palghat Mani Iyer & Palani Subramanya Pillai, the audience have been attracted towards Mridangam & othe rpercussion instruments. Today, we briefly explain what we are going to do in a Thani Avarthanam concert. By this brief explanation before a Thani Avarthanam concert, we are preparing the audience to understand the intricacies of Laya. Only now Thani Avarthanam concerts are gaining ground. But it will take time to create a longing for a long Thani. The advocacy of short Thani is intended to keep the expectation of audience alive.

Thala Suitable for Thani
In those days the accompanists enjoyed great respect among musicians. A family atmosphere prevailed on the stage. When a senior mridangist took his choice of Krithi and Thala for his Thani Avarthanam, it was welcomed, & not mistaken. The mood of the Laya Vidwan was respected & his imagination was enjoyed. Today many musicians are not prepared to accept this. They feel that it is their prerogative to fix the time, Krithi & Thala for Thani or do not offer time for Thani at all. Some pretend to be forgetful. This attitude of disrespect & egoism has frustrated manya senior percussionist.

Every sincere Laya Vidwan is capable of playing a Thani in any Thala provided it is offered with genuineness & not for fun. Some musicians try to tease the percussionists by giving rare Thalas for Thani without prior intimation. They would do so even with Vidwans having decades of experience & have records of having met with greater challenges in their prime time.

As for suitable Thalas, the four popular Thalas, namely, Chaturashra Thriputa (Adi Thalam), Thrishra Eka (the so called Rupakam), Mishra Chapu & Kanda Chapu are most appropriate. When a Pallavi is sung in a rare Thals, a small Thani can be played in the end to highlight the scope for imagination in that Thala. A prior briefing will only enhance the confidence & power of imagination of the percussionists.