Regarded as the king of percussion instruments, the mridangam occupies an exalted position in Carnatic music today. It is the main percussion instrument in Carnatic concerts (except in Nagaswaram concerts). The word mridangam literally means 'clay body', which indicates that it was originally made of clay.
Construction: The mridangam that is used today is made of a single block of wood that has been hollowed out. The wood used is either jack wood or redwood. It is a double-headed drum, shaped like a barrel. The two heads are connected by means of leather straps that run along the sides of the body. There are small cylindrical pieces of wood called pullu, placed between the wooden shell and the leather straps. By moving the pullu, the pitch can be changed. The right head, which is smaller than the left head, is made up of three concentric layers of skin. The innermost layer is not visible. The outer layer, usually made up of calf hide, is called the meettu tol and the inner ring, made up of sheepskin, is called the chapu tol. At the centre of the right head is a black spot, called the choru. This is a permanent spot made of a mixture of cooked rice, manganese and iron filings. This is what gives the mridangam its special tone.
The left head, known as the toppi, is made up of only two layers of skin. The inner layer is made of sheepskin while the outer is made of buffalo hide. Before playing, the performer applies a thick paste of semolina or cream of wheat to the centre of the left head. This is done to lower the pitch and give the mridangam a bass sound.
|Tuning: The right
head is tuned to the main artiste's pitch. Both the heads tuned are with the aid
of a small wooden piece (usually the pullu itself) and a smooth stone. Striking the rim from the
outside with downward strokes raises the pitch and striking the underside
with upward strokes lowers the pitch. The left head is tuned to the tonic,
an octave lower.
Posture: The larger the mridangam, the lower the pitch and vice-versa. The lower-pitched mridangams are known as taggu sruti mridangam (usually range from C to E) and the higher-pitched mridangams are known as hecchu sruti mridangam (usually between F and G sharp) in Tamil.