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Mridangam Magic, Mathematically Speaking

Posts tagged mridangam


By Carolyn Oei, 27 January 2019

Cover image: Mackerel

I’ve often joked with close friends that I might be an Indian princess in exile in a nonya’s body. I take very easily to most things Indian; the food, the music and movies – hell, even my husband is three-quarters Indian.

Maybe it isn’t a joke, after all.

So enamoured am I of Indian culture that when I saw the promo for a Mridangam Carnatic Workshop as part of ARTWALK Little India, I immediately signed up.

The mridangam is a percussion instrument with a bass sound on one end and tuned an octave higher on the other. One usually plays the mridangam with one’s dominant hand against the end with the higher note.

As much as I had listened to Indian classical music previously, I was more familiar with the tabla than the mridangam, which is a key instrument in the Carnatic (or Karnatak) musical style of South India.

We didn’t know what to expect of the workshop, but from its name, we were excited about having a go at banging on a drum.

Much to our elation, we did! But it was all too brief. For the most part of the one-hour workshop, we were taken through an extended and exhausting exercise in mental sums. It was exhausting for me because I really and truly am not mathematically inclined. I just cannot.

Master mridangam tutor, Tripunithura Sreekanth of the Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society, taking workshop attendees through the, literally, one-two-three-four’s of basic Carnatic beats. Photo: Mackerel

“So, one bar is one, two, three four. You multiply by four, you have 16. Then, you can play any combination of beats that add up to 16. Five, four, three, two, two. Yes, that’s very nice.”

“Or you could also have four, four, three, two, three. Yes, very nice also.”

“We’ll play this and you count the beats, okay?”

I was not OK. My head was hurting. Four plus four plus five plus…and to music?! Oh, how the room spun!

It was all my linear brain could do to appreciate the sheer complexity of the music that the three musicians before us brought to life so effortlessly on their instruments – the mridangam, the flute and the fiddle.

And when I got the chance to bang on the drum for a bit, my fingers seized up, my wrists froze and I’d lost the count by the fourth round. It is odd that if I were to translate those beats into kinaesthetics, I’d have had little problem doing so.

The trio rounded off the workshop with a display of pure artistry as they played a highly complex piece of music that sent our spirits soaring.

ARTWALK Little India continues until Saturday 2 February 2019.  It is organised by LASALLE College of the Arts and Singapore Tourism Board with the support of the Little India Shopkeepers’ and Heritage Association.

This Mridangam Carnatic Workshop was led by Tripunithura Sreekanth of the
Singapore Indian Fine Arts Society and his two colleagues.