Review: Musical Excellence of Mridangam by Umayalpuram K Sivaraman, T Ramasami, MD Naresh
Umayalpuram K Sivaraman (UKS), a household name in Carnatic music circles, is quite possibly one of the last connections we have to what is commonly referred to as the golden era of recorded Carnatic music (mid 20th century). Having been trained by some of the greatest exponents of the mridangam, this octogenarian has amassed a wealth of knowledge on the instrument and its tonal characteristics. I have had the unique pleasure of watching his playing style and technique adaptively evolve from the days he played with Semmangudi (elder to UKS by over 30 years) to accompanying a leading vocalist of today like Abhishek Raghuram (over 50 years his junior).
The book Musical Excellence of Mridangam is a culmination of a century of effort in search of perfection of both the art of playing and the crafting of the instrument itself. In this book, UKS is joined by two eminent scientists, Drs Ramasami and Naresh of the Central Leather Research Institute in Chennai, to study the tonal properties of the mridangam. A leading practitioner of the art has thus collaborated with two scientists who have spent their careers studying the structural properties of leather and membranes, resulting in a labour of love that is this monograph.
The unique quality of the mridangam (and its cousins in the Indian classical tradition, the tabla and the pakhawaj) is that it is set to a specific tonic frequency matching that of the artiste producing the melody in the musical surface. Thus, the tone of the mridangam has to be in perfect harmony with the music being performed for optimal aesthetic impact. The role of the rhythmic percussionist in Indian music is also to embellish the melody with appropriate tonal accompaniment, in addition to rhythmic timekeeping. Although percussion instruments from other cultures are capable of some alignment to pitch, the complexity of tones that Indian instruments produce put them in a special category. Any study of the tonality of such instruments should therefore involve a comprehensive study of not just the fundamental frequency produced by the skin of the drum (as seen in Latin and West African percussion), but the complex harmonics that provide a scaffold for the melody to be built upon. UKS and colleagues set out to do exactly that.
The book begins with a conversation with UKS where he introduces his philosophy of accompaniment. In most forms of music, a drummer is someone who keeps time and lays down the beat. UKS views the role of the mridangam artiste as being much more than that. He sees the instrument as something that plays an approximation of the music itself, in addition to laying down the rhythm. It is in this context that UKS identifies his quest for perfection in nadham, a term he uses quite extensively to describe tone.
The tonal outcomes of the mridangam are a result of the arrangement of two heads with differently structured interconnected membranes working in resonance with one another, and an asymmetrically hollow chamber in the middle where the sound waves created by striking the membranes reverberate. The tension on the right head of the mridangam contributes most to the particular pitch that the mridangam is tuned to, but all of the harmonics and overtones are created by the magic produced in the hands producing the right impulse on the head of the drum. The left head of the mridangam, also known as the thoppi, lays down the low frequency accents on the beat and is capable of pitch bending, which is a unique feature of Indian percussion instruments.
Given the mridangam has a sustained character of vibrations, it is possible to excite the drum and immediately make scientific observations about the frequencies produced. Much of the book is dedicated to the analysis of the drum’s frequency responses to percussive contact using a technique called the Fourier transform, named after its inventor, the French mathematician Joseph Fourier, who devised it for the study of recurrent sunspots. Although the book makes references to early work by Helmholtz and Rayleigh, it draws most heavily from the germinal work of the Nobel laureate Sir CV Raman, whose work on the physics of Indian musical instruments is much less known than his other contributions to science.
In essence, all vibrating/oscillating forms have a periodic characteristic. Musical instruments and even the human voice produce tones that contain multiple frequencies all at once. The Fourier transform converts any signal from space and time into the frequency domain. In doing so, it identifies the power and amplitude at various frequencies in a periodic signal. Applying this Fourier transform to a mridangam sound can tell the scientist which frequencies in a signal carry the most power.
UKS and his colleagues use this technique to identify the frequency characteristics of the mridangam by varying several parameters. This includes the materials used to construct the instrument (skin, tonewood), the length of the resonant chamber and its geometry, the layering of the attached surfaces of skin, and most importantly, the characteristics of the person playing the instrument. There is extensive scientific literature on the use of maple for the construction of violins, and spruce/mahogany/rosewood for acoustic guitars, with each of these tonewoods associated with qualities such as warmth, brightness, and sustain. The preferred wood for the construction of the optimal mridangam is jackwood, specific to certain regions of South India.
Most importantly, the analysis also identifies what makes a maestro like UKS get the perfect combination of harmonics and overtones from the instrument that novices can only dream of. It is often said that geniuses like the jazz saxophonist John Coltrane were able to produce sounds that did not even exist in their instrument. The science presented in this book confirms that UKS can bring out sounds from his instrument that no one else can.
The book clearly emphasizes the technical, and is perhaps best viewed as a collector’s item for anyone with an interest in the science of musical instruments, Indian or otherwise. Musical Excellence of Mridangam single-mindedly focuses upon technical aspects of the instrument and stays away from any sociocultural issues related to the forms of music that the instrument supports. The final chapter of the book focuses on the use of synthetic materials for the creation of an instrument that avoids the use of animal hide. The initial results from this new instrument show a lot of promise in terms of tonal similarity to the original instrument, and perhaps better harmonics.
In conclusion, this work aims to create a testable scientific legacy for the mridangam, and will be invaluable to a reader with an interest in combining the sciences and the arts with an interest in acoustics. There is also a much-needed call in the book for more scientific research on indigenous Indian instruments and traditions. While there exists a good bit of ethnomusicology research on Indian music, there is little on the science of Indian musical instruments. This book is an excellent first step towards building that knowledge base.
Ramesh Balasubramaniam is a Professor of Cognitive Science at the University of California, Merced. His research specializes in music cognition.