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On Mridangam & Thani Avarthanam

Karaikudi Mani


Yes, Mridangam playing is not just for "sogasu", but is also sokkajeyu Mridanga talamu ! Enthralling ! I say this with all pride having experienced a little of the immeasurable ocean of Laya and  having befriended the divine instrument called the Mridangam.

Why Thani Avarthanam?

The other day a friend of mine, a senior Mridangam Vidwan, was very dejectedly saying that the vocalist had given him time to play the ThaniAvarthanam only after a full two and a half hours of singing and thus insulted him. We all know that for years the Thani avarthanam has been considered as an integral part of a concert like a raga, kruthi, neraval or swara. But of late the trend has drastically changed to push Thani Avarthanam towards the end, like a tail piece.

As we learn from our elders and scriptures, Thani Avarthanam has been given a great prominence, right from the days when a full concert pattern got evolved. The concert pattern itself has been there for about 100 years. Thani Avarthanam must have been equally old enough.

All along concerts are successful mainly due to the rhythmic support which is the life in a concert. But as we learn from History, the status and importance of Mridangam has been recognized only from Narayana Swamy Appa's period. Narayana Swamy Appa hailed from the southern Tamil Nadu and was a contemporary of the legendary Maha Vaidyanatha Sivan and Patnam Subramani Iyer.

Thani Avarthanam is an occasion when the percussion artists exhibit their skill, imagination and expertise in playing on their respective instruments. Like raga rendering, there is full freedom and scope for the laya Vidwan to aesthetically present the intricacies of Laya to the enjoyment of the audience which consists of both knowledgeable group and laymen.

When should a Thani Avarthanam be performed?

About 3 decades back, the time, kruthi and Thala of a Thani Avarthanam had been the choice of the Mridangist. Depending upon their physical condition, mood and the condition of the instrument, the mridangist would take up from the end of any kruthi with a kalapramanam that suits his mood and play his solo. There had been even two or three Thani Avarthanams in those days.

But today, the mridangist has to wait for the main artist's nod to begin his Thani Avarthanam at the latter's convenience. In the present day situation, Thani Avarthanam should be timed properly. It should not be timed later than a full one and a half hours. The artists who are technically sound yet physically not so, do require sufficient energy in store to present an easy and pleasing Thani. There are certain practical truths behind this claim.

Let us take the instrument first. In the early days scarcity was an unknown term. Every thing was in abundance. People did not have the necessity to go in for inferior goods. The Mridangam is basically made of the skins of animals namely the cow, goat, calf and buffalo. Though the skins are drawn from dead animals they had 'life'(jeevan). This was because the animals in those days had a rich nourishing fodder provided by nature. Their constitution was such that even after the animals were dead their skin proved to be full of 'life'.

Secondly, the labourers who were making the Mridangam were very sincere, highly skilled persons devoted to their jobs.

So, two good things, namely, the material and the labour put together, the result was high quality. The Mridangam had a sustained resonance throughout the concert without the help of an equalizer or an amplifier. Irrespective of the performing fingers and playing techniques of the performer, the mridangam was giving a divine "Naadham".
Thus even after three hours the artist could still carry on with the same instrument which had been 'friendly' to him to play a wonderful Thani. The high quality was maintained throughout the concert.

But this situation is not to be seen now. The cattle nowadays eat posters, garbage and what not. They get only adulterated and contaminated fodder and water. So their body condition deteriorates and their skin loses its vitality.
There is a saying in Tamil, "Vallavanukku pullum ayudham", which means that for a knowledgeable person, even grass can become a weapon. Even if the material is bad the Mridangam maker can bring the best out of it. Unfortunately this is not the case now.

Nowadays, when everything is becoming commercialised, there is no winder that even Mridangam making has followed suit. If only the Mridangam Vidwan is conversant with the technique of making Mridangam, he can extract good work from the maker. But most of the current day Vidwans and students lack on this front. They are satisfied with whatever is done to their instrument for a beat out.

The Mridangam after accompanying the main artist, violin etc., gradually loses its quality half way though the concert. Apart from this, the mridangist has to cover up the deficiency in the tempo and control of thala of many of the main artists and co-accompanists. This adds to the trouble for a good Mridangam.

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