Like every other facet of Indian culture, Indian Music Instruments reflect the layers of metamorphosis happened over 3,000 years of recorded history
The arrival of new groups, from Aryans to Islamic invasion and the Britishers, brought new cultural ideas and innovations and with the incessant flow of time, the new ideas were absorbed and assimilated, emerging finally as synthesized Indian Art. In Music, this synthesis can be seen in the relationship between Ragas and Talas (rhythms) of India and those of the Middle East.
Most of the Indian musical instruments have evolved over centuries. Each instrument has its own history behind its evolution. In the early stages of Indian Culture, artifacts, musical instruments, and lifestyles were simple and basic in nature. Most Indian instruments, although having started in simple forms, eventually became exquisite instruments capable of producing a varied pitch and range of octaves because of the long period of evolution. The Mridangam belongs to the percussion family and has been played by Indians for more than 2000 years.
Over the years, Mridangam evolved to be made of different kinds of wood due to its increased durability, and today, its body is constructed from wood of the jackfruit tree. It is widely believed that the Tabla, the Mridangam’s Hindustani musical counterpart, was first constructed by splitting Mridangam in half. Mridangam has a large role in Newa music. One of the earliest Nepal Bhasa manuscripts on music is a treatise on this instrument called ‘Mridanga Anukaranam’.
With the development of the Mridangam came the evolution of the tala/rhythmic system. The system of Talas in South Indian Carnatic Music may be the most complex percussive rhythm system of any form of classical music. Over the years and especially during the early 20th century, great maestros of Mridangam arose, like the virtuosos Palani Subramaniam Pillai, Palghat Mani Iyer, and C.S. Murugabhupathy, who contributed so much to the art that they are often referred to as the “Mridangam Trinity”.
Mridangam’s origin is believed to date back to the Hindu mythology; it was visible in the ancient sculptures and paintings, wherein it is often depicted as the instrument of choice for a number of deities, including Ganesha and Nandi, who used to play the Mridangam during Lord Shiva’s “Taandav” dance, causing a divine rhythm to be heard across Tri-lands. Another myth adds that the Mridangam was apparently created because an instrument was needed that could recreate the sound of Indra’s movement through the heavens on his elephant. The Mridangam is thus also known as the ‘Deva Vaadyam’ or “Divine Instrument”, the instrument of the Lords.
Mridangam in Tamil culture is called Tannumai. The earliest mention of the Mridangam in Tamil literature is found perhaps in the Sangam literature where the instrument is known as ‘tannumai‘. In later works like the Silappadikaram also, there are detailed references to it as in the Natyashastra. During the Sangam period, it was one of the principal percussion instruments to sound the beginning of war along with murasu because it was believed that its holy sound will deflect enemy arrows and protect the King. During the post-Sangam period, as mentioned in the epic Silappadikaram, it formed a part of the Antarakoṭṭu – a musical ensemble at the beginning of dramatic performances that would later develop into Bharatanatyam. The player of this instrument held the title Tannumai Aruntozhil Mutalvan.