Mrdangam

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The mrdangam is a highly developed classical drum of South India, employing precise tuning, a variety of tones, and subtle finger techniques.  In comparison to other barrel-shaped drums its range of tonal qualities and intricacy of technique are far more sophisticated.  It is the most important percussion instrument in any Karnatak music ensemble, performing both accompanying and solo roles.  Throughout its long playing tradition the mrdangam has been used in a variety of ensembles, gradually evolving from the accompaniment of theatre music to more elaborate styles of temple, dance and concert musics.  At present it is used most notably in Karnatak concerts and Talavadya Kaccheris (percussion ensembles), in Bharata Natyam (South Indian classical dance), in Bhajans (congregational devotional songs), and Harikathakalakshepam (religious discourse with musical accompaniment).

For centuries now, hand-carved jackwood has been used for constructing the hollow shell of the drum.  Both ends of the drum are covered with heads made from cow and buffalo hides which are fastened to hoops and kept tight by leather thongs laced from one end of the drum to the other.  
 
The right head, valantalai, is tuned to the tonic or fundamental pitch of the singer or the instrumentalist who is being accompanied, and the left head provides the bass.  Note that this is for right handed drummers; the heads will be switched by left handed players.  The right head is made up of three layers, two of cow-hide with a layer of goat skin in between. At its centre is a black spot called karanai, made from kittam, a powder of manganese and iron oxide which is mixed with cooked rice paste. This load of black material at the centre of the middle membrane of the head determines the characteristic tone and pitch of the drum.

The left head, idantalai or toppi, also consists of three layers; the skin proper made of goat skin, and two layers of rim made from buffalo hide.  On both the right and left heads goat skin is used as it is highly preferred for its durability and tonal quality.  The same principle of central loading is also followed with regard to the left head.  A sticky dough is prepared in the right consistency by mixing ravai (cream of wheat) with water and is then  applied to the centre of the left head.  The central portion of the head is moistened before application.  The ravai is applied fresh at the beginning of each performance and scraped off carefully at the end of the concert.  The ravai is applied at the center in the form of a small circle and the amount is adjusted so as to get a rich bass tone.  The performer should be frequently moistening the edges and the centre of the ravai-ring slightly with dabbs of water during the performance.  The size of the shell and the circumference of the heads are also important factors in determining the pitch of the drum.  


Audio:

<a href="http://trichysankaran.bandcamp.com/track/mrdangam-solo-in-misra-chapu-tala">Mrdangam Solo In Misra Chapu Tala by Trichy Sankaran</a>

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(This description is adapted from The Rhythmic Principles and Practice of South Indian Drumming by Trichy Sankaran)