Narendra Kusnur's music musings …


Umayalpuram L Sivaraman (left) on mridangam and Bhawani Shankar on pakhawaj

The ‘Percussion from India’ series was started in November 2013 as a follow-up to the ‘Instruments from India’ series, which talked of melody instruments. The first two parts of the new series, which aims to features drums commonly used in India, spoke of the tabla.

Like in the previous series, the aim is two-fold: one, to make Indian readers aware of certain artistes they might not have heard before, and secondly, to expose relatively new audiences, mainly from the West, to the beauty that various Indian instruments offer.

In this series, I shall not go into too many technicalities and playing styles, unless really necessary. I shall focus on how the instrument is used in different genres, and mention the leading performers in each style. The list of musicians may, however, not be exhaustive.

This month, we shall talk of double-headed drums used in different types of Indian music.

DOUBLE-HEADED or two-faced drums are used in north Indian Hindustani music, south Indian Carnatic music and different types of folk and devotional music. In most cases, the player sits on the floor and keeps the instrument on his lap, though in some types of folk music, he attaches it with a strap around his shoulder.

The main instruments in this category are the mridangam, which forms a very important part of Carnatic music, and the pakhawaj, which was earlier used in the dhrupad form or Hindustani music but is seeing rarer exposure today. The dhol forms an important part of folk music. A brief note on the various double-headed drums.

Mridangam: Known primarily for its use in Carnatic music, the mridangam is also heard in the Nepalese form of Newa music. However, while the Carnatic musician sits on the floor, the Newa musician stands and plays.

In Carnatic music, the mridangam can be used as a solo instrument with a violin accompaniment, or to accompany vocalists, violinists and flute players, among others. It is played with the hands. Often, it is one among the many percussion instruments used in a Carnatic concert. The others, which include the ghatam, kanjira and morsing, will be discussed in a later part of this series.

Besides Carnatic music, the mridangam is also used to accompany southern dance forms, particularly Bharatanatyam, and in theatrical dance forms like Yakshagana. Derived from the words ‘mrida’ (clay or earth) and ‘anga’ (body), the mridangam is said to have been played since the time of Lord Shiva.

Over the years, some of the best known players have included T K Murthy, Palghat R Raghu, Umayalpuram L Sivaraman, Karaikudi Mani, Vellore G Ramabhadran, Palani Sunramaniam Pillai, Palghat Mani Iyer, C Murugabhupathy and Mahadevu Radha Krishna Raju.

The mridangam has also been used extensively in south Indian film music by L Vaidyanathan, Ilayaraja, A R Rahman and others. It has also found a role in north-south fusion encounters, and in Mumbai, Sridhar Parthasarathy has often accompanied tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain and other percussion ensembles.

Pakhawaj: A variant and descendant of the mridangam, the pakhawaj is used as an accompaniment for various music and dance performances. It is also played with the hands.

In Hindustani music, it was primarily used as an accompaniment to dhrupad and dhamaar styles. The famous Dagar brothers were accompanied by pakhawaj greats like Govindrao Burhanpurkar, S V Patwardhan and Ambadas Pant Angle. Other players from the older generation include Ramashish Pathak.

Rom the 1970s onwards, Bhawani Shankar has established himself as a leading pakhawaj player, accompanying instrumentalists like santoor maestro Pandit Shivkumar Sharma and flautist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia.

Legend has it that the tabla was created after cutting the pakhawaj into two halves.

Dhol: The dhol is used in folk and devotional music from various states of India. Ranging from bhangra and Sufiana music of Punjab and the Sindhi dhamaal, to Ganesh songs in Maharashtra and the Navratri festival of Gujarat, to the music of Assam, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Karnataka and Kashmir, it reflects energy and rhythmic vibrancy.

Unlike the Carnatic mridangam and Hindustani pakhawaj, the dhol is played with a pair of sticks of different thickness, providing different tonal patterns.

Other double-headed drums: Among the popular types is the khol, used in Bengali and north-eastern devotional music and played with the hands. It is also used in Baul and Bhatiyali music.

In south India, the thavil is played mainly at temples, but is also heard at public concerts. It is also used as an accompaniment to the wind instrument nadaswaram. For a right-handed player, the right side is played with the hand and the left with a stick.

Other double-headed drums include the damroo, associated with the cosmic dance of Lord Shiva, the madal, used with dance and folk music, and the naal, which is tuned with bolts.

Each of these drums has a charm of its own, and add to the variety and diversity of Indian music.


Comments on: "Percussion from India ― 3/ The marvellous double-headed drums" (1)

  1. Shankar Shenai said:

    Very well written.

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