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Plight of mridangam makers

Tālam & Layam related topics
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Plight of mridangam makers

Post by venkatakailasam » 05 Jun 2012, 15:43

Here is an article by Shri S Out Look India...

Thyagaraja's Cow ...
fearing that the article may disappear ,I am copying below its contents..:

Sogasuga mridanga talamu jatagoorchi ninnu sokkajeya dheerudevvado? Who is it that can beautifully sing your praise to the rhythm of the mridangam? Thyagaraja, the early 19th century bard, asks Rama in one of his 700-odd kirtanas. The Telugu composition in Sriranjani Ragam, much repeated in the concert circuit, always brings a smile to the lips of a mridangist. But it may soon disappear.

The irony is that Brahmins, the most touchy about the cow's divinity, have to run their fingers on a slaughtered cow's hide to produce music.

The leather drum stands threatened by the prospect of a cow-slaughter ban about which the Congress momentarily was, and the bjp always is, enthusiastic.

While the nation has been debating the political and economic fallout of such a ban—the fate of beef-eaters, leather and beef export industries etc—there's an unintended consequence many are unaware of: Carnatic music will no longer sound the same. Cowhide forms a crucial element of the double-headed leather drum, which is to Carnatic music what the tabla is to Hindustani. And a ban would silence what Nobel laureate Sir C.V. Raman described as "the king of percussion instruments".

Mridangam-makers have always been Dalits and, in our era, frequently Dalit Christians. One such family, in fact, traces its roots right up to the time of Thyagaraja (1767-1847). Originally from Thanjavur, today most of them are settled in Chennai's Mylapore area, the nerve-centre of Tamil-Brahmin culture of which Carnatic music is a crucial part. Each of the three Veerabhadrasamy Koil streets here houses one mridangam-maker's shop. Yesudas, Aruldas, (the late) Gunaseelan and Johnson are brothers who have crafted and serviced the mridangams of almost every artist who matters. In fact, one brother camps in Mumbai twice a year to repair mridangams. From T.K. Murthy, Umayalpuram Sivaraman, Karaikudi R. Mani, T.V. Gopalakrishnan (TVG), Guruvayur Dorai, Mannargudi Easwaran and Srimushnam Raja Rao to the Canada-based Trichy Sankaran, each pro seeks them out. Just like the late Palghat Mani Iyer and Pazhani Subramania Pillai sought out Antony Sebastian (known as Setty), the father of these brothers, and Antony's two brothers Senkol and Fernandes. These three were, in turn, the sons of a man who responded to the name Sevittiyan to those who could not get around to uttering his real name, Sebastian.

Recalls 80-year-old maestro Murthy: "I had met Sevittiyan as a nine-year-old. He made mridangams for Narayanasamiappa who introduced the instrument to the concert platform during the regime of the Maratha kings in 19th century Thanjavur." Sevittiyan carried the mantle from his father Adaikkalam, who must have crafted the instrument for mridangists who accompanied Thyagaraja. We are also talking about a family that must have been one of the first Dalit converts to Christianity in 18th century Tamil Nadu.

The present generation has no memory of when the conversion could have happened. But surely, if the 'Paraiyar' ancestors of today's drum-makers had hoped to overcome the stigma of untouchability by embracing Christianity, their hope has been belied. Even the shifting to Madras in the '60s did not offer the anonymity that urbanity usually brings with it, since dealing with untreated leather, especially cowhide, continued to invite social opprobrium. Says Aruldas alias Raju (most of the mridangam-makers are given new 'Hindu names' by the artists they are associated with), the first to move to the city with his father Setty: "It was most difficult even to rent a house. People would turn us away because we handled animal hides."

The hides of three animals go into the making of a mridangam: goat, buffalo and cow. Buffalo skin is used to make the ropes (vaar) that run along the hollow jack-wood frame and also for the thoppi (cap) on the left head that provides the bass effect. The thoppi has two overlapping layers of buffalo skin with a layer of goatskin in the middle.The right head, valanthalai (see pix), is made of three concentric layers of skin. Moving inwards, first we have meetu thol, made of cowhide. Next, the mostly invisible chapu thol, made of goatskin. At the centre is a black circle (soru), made of a mixture of iron ore and manganese laced with rice starch, for tonal variations. In a scientific paper C.V. Raman wrote on Indian percussion instruments in 1922, he pointed out that while the drums the world over produced "inharmonic overtones" (that is, mere sound), "the mridangam forms an exception to the rule and gives rise to harmonic or musical overtones in the same manner as a stringed instrument." A bow to the faceless artisans of the Thanjavur parampara.

The irony is that Brahmins, who are most touchy about the cow's perceived divinity, have to necessarily run their fingers on a slaughtered cow's hide to produce music. When asked if they would oppose the proposed ban on artistic grounds, top mridangam players Outlook spoke to—Murthy, Sivaraman, Karaikudi Mani and TVG—dodged the question. While Murthy and Mani admitted that without cowhide there would be no mridangam, Sivaraman talked of importing synthetic parchment and TVG suggested importing cowhide. Aruldas, Yesudas, Johnson and their next generation—Lawrence, Martin and Arokkiyam—are shocked that the exponents of the art refuse to accept the fact that the making of a mridangam involves the killing of a cow in its prime. Mani, a finicky player whose mridangam needs to be serviced (for Rs 1,500) after every concert, insists: "Only those cows are killed that are old and are of no use." Adds Sivaraman: "Cows are not killed to make mridangams. They are slaughtered anyway and we merely use the hide."

Thiruvarur's Rajamanikkam, at 70 the oldest surviving flag-bearer of the Thanjavur tradition and nephew of the legendary Setty, scoffs at these views. "Have these people ever been to a slaughterhouse to see what we do? We examine cows and choose the healthy ones that have good, lustrous, soft skin. The cow should have given birth at least a couple of times but shouldn't be too old. We pay Rs 1,500 for the hide of one such cow." The mridangam craftsmen point out that they would never buy cowhide from Chennai's slaughterhouses "since cows here live on newsprint and other waste". They make regular trips to Thanjavur to buy the hide of well-nourished cows. Only goat and buffalo skins are procured in Chennai.

Says Yesudas, who has been exclusively making mridangams for Mani: "If the ban does come into force, we will defy it and use cowhide come what may." Unwittingly admitting that he would even do something illegal to procure a drum, mridangist Mani says, "Despite the ban on the use of pangolin skin, the kanjira (tambourine) is still available but at a premium. Similarly, we might have to shell out more for mridangams." However, Umayalpuram Sivaraman wants to change with the times: "Today doctors fit synthetic valves to the heart.Similarly, we will find a substitute for cowhide."

Irrespective of whether a cow-slaughter ban is effected, the mridangam-makers expect a little more respect from the players. And from society. "We deserve to be treated better than the cows," says Rajamanikkam....

here is the link..

Nick H
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Re: Fumigation of mridangams for travel to NZ and Aus

Post by Nick H » 06 Jun 2012, 01:02

I'm sure that innovation is possible, but it is not going to happen overnight. It would be tough for a big industry, with research facilities, to find new materials at short notice: a cottage industry is not going to be able to.

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Re: Plight of mridangam makers

Post by venkatakailasam » 06 Jun 2012, 18:11

An alternative to leather seems to have been developed by Shri UKS...

."Last music season, I attended a lec-dem by Sri UKS at Krishna Gana Sabha where he showed his newly crafted mridangams that did not use leather materials. He specifically stated that they would not cause problems with Aus/NZ customs. He has developed a collaboration with people at CLRI in Chennai to arrive at the right synthetic materials. After doing frequency analyses (using CV Raman's methods), he concluded that these mridangams passed his stringent sound tests."....

See post no.#5 at this link..

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Re: Plight of mridangam makers

Post by ShrutiLaya » 06 Jun 2012, 18:40

I'm sure they're not going to ban milk. So there will have to be cows. And ban or not, these cows will eventually die. How is the govt. going to establish whether a given piece of leather came from a cow that died naturally or was slaughtered?!

There may be many reasons to investigate alternative materials for mridangams, but this one sounds rather lame, IMHO

- Sreenadh

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Re: Plight of mridangam makers

Post by Music » 06 Jun 2012, 21:25

Vow! Never knew cow hide is crucial in the making of a mridangam. In an art form that is quite 'satvik' in nature, I am really surprised how this became such an integral part.
Although CM is a highly traditional art form, we have been pretty progressive with CM in many ways.....using mikes, using western instruments such as violin, and what not. Regardless of this law, I am sure there must be very good alternatives to cow hide.
By the way, do tablas require cow/goat/buffalo hide too?

Nick H
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Re: Plight of mridangam makers

Post by Nick H » 07 Jun 2012, 01:40

They certainly require animal skin. I don't know which ones, but I suspect cow or goat. Buffalo is unique to the very thick outer circle on the mridangam left hand side; it is part of the "design" that makes it so very difficult to play!

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Re: Plight of mridangam makers

Post by sridharrajagopal » 01 Apr 2013, 23:32

Fascinating post! Thanks for sharing!


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Re: Plight of mridangam makers

Post by thenpaanan » 31 Jan 2015, 20:37

This reminds me of an article I read that said that mridangam (and kanjira) playing was considered off-bounds for Brahmin musicians for quite a while (because one had to touch a dead animal's skin) until some famous proponents broke with tradition. Cannot remember the refernce now.

The same article also said that you cannot really use the hides of already dead animals for musical instruments. The skin has to come off a freshly slaughtered animal for it to be supple and as the article posted above (Thanks!) says the animal has to be in its prime. This is true for all such instruments the world over.

The most uncommon use of leather I have come across was a tambura that Late Shri Ramji (of Trichy fame) had made -- he showed me a tambura whose "mouth" (the space under the bridge) was covered in a very thin and soft leather. The effect was that the tambura had a very mellow (and surprisingly pleasing) sound. Perhaps looking at the surprise in my face he asked me with a twinkle in his eye to guess who had asked for it to be made. Of course I had no idea of the answer or why he was so amused -- the answer turned out to be Yesudas! He then proceeded to give me a detailed lecture on the manufacture of tamburas (for which I am indebted to him -- he did not treat me just as a customer, he wanted to educate me -- he told me his theories on what causes resonance and what spoils it).

I am (perhaps I should not be) surprised that these famous mridangam players do not know the ins and outs of how their instrument is manufactured. Perhaps it is willful ignorance.


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Re: Plight of mridangam makers

Post by kittappa » 01 Feb 2015, 12:19

More than 20 years ago, Umayalpuram Sivaraman came up with an innovation. A mridangam made of fibre glass. He also played it in some concerts. This I believe was made without cow hide. Wonder what happened to that innovation.

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Re: Plight of mridangam makers

Post by thanjavooran » 01 Feb 2015, 15:05

If my memory goes right it was demonstrated in MA morning session. Only the body made out of fibre glass with bolt and nut arrangement for sruthi alignment.
01 02 2015

Nick H
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Re: Plight of mridangam makers

Post by Nick H » 01 Feb 2015, 19:00

I am (perhaps I should not be) surprised that these famous mridangam players do not know the ins and outs of how their instrument is manufactured. Perhaps it is willful ignorance.
They know. They will be fussing details with the makers. It is written that the wood should come from a tree that grew, by a river, within the hearing of temple bells. I do not remember if any such specification is made for the cow, the buffalo, and the goat.
Umayalpuram Sivaraman came up with an innovation. A mridangam made of fibre glass. This I believe was made without cow hide.
Only the body made out of fibre glass
Correct. The heads were made as per any mridangam, and may also have been attached the usual way. They were so light that you could pick one up with one finger. I don't know if the heavy wooden ones really sound better or not, but, in the end, the grp ones, as far as I know, were only popular, for their portability, with students.

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