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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





For those hard to describe whimsical moods, there is nothing more soothing than smooth instrumental music. A truly calming and introspective melody like raaga Nat Bhairav does the trick. This poignant melody has been purely executed by versatile violinist Kala Ramnath, a talented, highly emotive violin virtuoso – one of the few that are well-known in the field of Hindustani classical music today. She has an exalted musical pedigree with a family full of violinists, including her grandfather and father who were also  her gurus and role models. She is the niece of famous violinist Dr. N. Rajam. Ramnath’s music has truly blossomed under the two-decade long tutelage of maestro Pandit Jasraj whose vocal nuances Kala astutely mirrors in her superb violin playing. This artist’s instrumental technique is highly vocalized and reflects the melodious style and repertoire of Pandit Jasraj’s ‘Mewati’ gharana or school of thought in North Indian classical music.

Ramnath has several popular commercial recordings. My favorites include the album ‘Passage through Dawn’ with morning raagas Ahir Bhairav and Lalit. In her ‘Gifted Violinist’ series, she has so deftly played the aforementioned raaga Nat Bhairav along with night melody Madhuwanti and a shorter, lighter piece in Khamaj. The second CD in this series contains a mercurial evening raaga Shudh Kalyan, a refreshing Shudh Nat and a haunting bhajan in Bhairavi (Mai Saanware Rang Rachi). There are numerous other classic collections of this young artist. We can hear her lovely violin pieces in raagas Gorakh Kalyan, Poorya Dhanashree, Behag, Hamsadhwani, Jog, Bageshree and so on. Ramnath has collaborated with various Indian and Western instrumentalists to produce varied fusion albums as well. In addition, this musician can be heard accompanying her guru Pandit Jasraj’s vocal recitals on the violin in various live and studio recordings.

The violin is a western instrument that has been so brilliantly naturalized within the Indian classical music genre for more than two centuries now. It is thought to have been introduced into the Indian Diaspora in 1790 by military band players of the East India Company, many of whom were Irish. It was first adopted into South Indian classical music and later embraced by North Indian classical music exponents as well. Compared to other Indian string instruments such as the veena and the sitar that have frets, the violin belongs to a category of instruments that comes close to mimicking the human voice. Other such instruments are the sarangi, the Dilruba, etc. In Kala’s experienced hands, the violin literally sings as is evinced in her elaborate improvisation of slow-paced raaga ‘alaap’ colored with ‘gamaks’ and ‘meends’ (oscillations).

Ramnath’s unique violin playing is characterized by an effusion of melodic elaboration, lilting compositions, expert, speedy ‘taan’ patterns and lightning phrases. She also has taught many students in Tampa Bay under the umbrella of Pandit Jasraj School of Music. She is a consummate artist who is constantly on concert tours all over the world.

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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