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Jyothi Venkatachalam




The chanting of the sacred mantras in the Rig Vedic period was the earliest known music in India. It is believed that goddess Saraswati danced to the vibrations of the rhythmic beats of the varied and unaccented tones of the Vedic priests and it was from her dancing that Prajapati Brahma discovered the metrical system.

In South India, there are many variations of time measures, which are called talas, and tempo, which is called laya. In ancient India, there were 108 variations of talas. Talas are the soul of music and dance is the foundation or root for rhythm and consequently the rhythmic instruments.

There are several interpretations on how the word “Thala” was born. One of them is that “Thal” is an apart of the word “Thal Prathishta.” Prathishta in Sanskrit means to establish. Any particular piece of music or song is ruled by the time cycle and hence the word Thala was born.

Another interpretation: It is believed that when Lord Shiva performed his ‘Aananda Thaandava,’ an ornament from his feet flew up and when the Lord tried to catch it, it touched his shoulder, which produced the sound “Thaa.” When it fell back on the ground, it produced the sound “Lam” and thus was born the word Thalam or Thala.

Mridangam, the king of drums, has been associated with classical music and dance from time immemorial. Though mridangam may be used for all classical dance forms, it has been associated with Bharatanatyam from time immemorial and perhaps also with Kuchipudi today. This is because it is most suited to classical Carnatic music that is sung for Bharatanatyam.

Mridangam is an indispensable accompaniment for Bharatanatyam. Though the ‘nattuvanar’ plays the cymbals and also verbally expresses the ‘sollu’-s, the mridangist synchronizes the dancer’s movements to the jathi and correspondingly to the song as a thread in a garland. There has been no particular code in playing the Mridangam for dance. Unlike the days in the past, today the entire orchestra sits on the side of the stage accompanying the dancer in a classical dance recital.

Mridangam is hailed as the ‘King of drums’ as it is the product of years of experiments of our ancestors with the various rhythm instruments to get this most suited and refined instrument for classical Carnatic music and Bharatanatyam. It is more than 2,000 years old. It has got a distinguished pitched tonal element and is often depicted as the instrument of choice for a number of deities and hence has been known as the” Instruments of the Gods.” The legend holds that Lord Siva danced to destroy ‘Tripura’ and only for the Lord the instrument of mridangam was created by Brahma and it was first played by Lord Ganesha. More than 80 skin instruments were used for ancient dance concerts depending on the theme and requirement. It has been proven and shown that all of them have been eliminated by this single instrument except a few, such as Ghatam, Ganjira, etc.

Let us now see how this divine instrument got its name. “Mrith” means mud and “angam” means body. As the body of the instrument was made of mud, it acquired its present name Mridangam. This instrument has undergone lot of changes over the years and today’s mridangam is made out of a single wood piece of Jackwood or Teakwood.

The music must be apt for the dance and the instruments best suited for dance are the melody instruments such as veena and flute along with the mridangam. Just as talas and ragas are used according to the mood and meaning of the song so also care should be taken by the percussionist to embellish the dance with his innovation and improvisation. In the Alaripoo, which is usually the first dance a dancer learns and performs after the Pushpanjali, in a Bharatanatyam recital, the mridangam playing has to be crisp, firm and sharp. In the Shabdam, Javalli and Padams where the lyrics in the songs and abhinaya (expression) come into action the mridangam playing has to be soft.

It is important for the Mridangist to have a good knowledge of the meaning of the songs. In the Varnam, where there is definite theme or concept, the mridangam has to be played very skillfully. Finally, in the Tillana, which is the finale in a Bharatanatyam recital, the Mridangam has to reach a crescendo of expression, movement and emotions.

In conclusion, I would like to say that though dance has seen a renaissance and so have the dance accompaniments it is ultimately what comes on stage at the time of the performance and may not bear any of our ideologies. Let’s use the human brain, a creation beyond the best to bring harmony between man, God and faith through dance.

Jyothi Venkatachalam, director of Abhyasa School Of Dance, Club Tampa Palms, offers classes in Bharat Natyam, traditional folk dances, Indian percussion instruments (Mridangam, Dholak, Ghatam, Kanjira, Morsingh and Konakol). She can be reached at (813) 977-9039 or (813) 404-7899 or via e-mail at jvenkata@yahoo.com






“Music is a higher revelation than all wisdom and philosophy” – Beethoven.  “Music gives a soul to the Universe, wings to the mind, flight to the imagination and life to everything” – Plato. 

Sensitivity to sound and a taste for tunefulness are some of the hallmarks of a true Indian musical aesthete. For a handful of masterful musicians, music is most certainly a way of life. They live and breathe music and view the world through a sensual aura of melody. What makes a musician tick is the fact that he or she is able to weave melodic rhapsodies that can create a mood, evoke an emotion or foster a feeling in the listener and also himself/herself.  This is indeed the uniqueness of a good Indian classical instrumentalist or vocalist. Since languages may be seen as barriers, the words here really do not seem to matter. Music is a universal language and it transcends all barriers.

How does the mind of a musician get to work to sing/play, perform, practice or teach any melody? How is a certain mood or atmosphere constructed?  Many of us may be familiar with the fact that Indian classical music is a highly sophisticated and evolved system that has progressed and blossomed through millennia based on ‘Raagdhari music’ or ‘Raaga’ centric music. The raaga or melodic entity is the basis on which musical structures are constructed and then adorned with improvisation and composition. There are numerous ragas in our music based on the ‘sapta-swaras’ (seven basic notes), 22 different microtones (shrutis) and several theoretical and scientific laws as well as nature and divinity-inspired aesthetics.

These ragas have formed, flowered and followed myriad musicians through centuries of resonant tides. Raaga is the language of Indian classical music and that is how music is taught, learnt, practiced and performed. The arrangement of notes is eclectic. In Indian music, ‘Sur’ is Almighty. Sur or Swara or Swar means a musical note. But Sur also means tunefulness – a note produced in the proper pitch, proper scale, correct natural placement and exact microtone – nothing more, nothing less! Tunefulness means everything and Sur is indeed the ultimate truth. Chastity of Sur is held in the highest esteem by the true practitioners of Indian music and even by any ear that is attuned to Indian music. The downside is once your ear, brain and heart are honed to Sur, you are hard to please.

India has colossal musical stalwarts, living legends and also a bright younger brood that are ever faithful to this burgeoning and flourishing art form. It continues an age-old unabated flow and commands a great and influential presence throughout the world. It can be heard from serene Indian classical music concerts and recordings to devotional and light music to old and new Bollywood music to fusion and world music and even audible in Hollywood musical sensibilities.

When you listen to a raaga rendition, for example Multani by the maestro Pandit Bhimsen Joshi, the purity of Sur and the harmonic arrangement of notes are at once evident. The improvisation within the structural framework of raaga Multani comes across in various vignettes of creativity. The masterful phrasing and fast ‘taans’ (note oscillations) are breathtaking.

You may attend a live sitar performance by the inimitable instrumentalist Pandit Ravi Shankar. The intimate interaction with the audience, however large, is the key. There is at once an exploration of inner happiness or ‘Ananda,’ which forces undivided attention from and full participation of the audience.

The spiritual component of Indian classical music is its most alluring and transformational aspect. When we for instance listen to Pandit Jasraj’s ornamental, pleasing entreaties to the High Heavens above, spiritual elevation is unavoidable.

Lavanya Dinesh is an accomplished performer and teacher of Hindustani classical vocal music and resides in Tampa. She regularly performs at musical venues, both in India and the United States. She has three album releases to her credit. The artist has worked as a music critic and feature writer for The Times of India and Deccan Herald. She can be reached at lavanya@lavanyadinesh.com





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