Navaneetha Krishnan is sitting on his haunches, discussing technicalities with a customer. With his right hand, he applies a black paste to the centre of an upturned mridangam and scrapes off the excess with a knife; turning the instrument with his left hand, he rubs the paste in vigorously with a smooth black stone. “This is a powder made from kittaankallu, mixed with cooked rice. It’s applied to improve the naadam (tone). When the customer is satisfied that the pitch matches the sruthi box’s hum, he asks for the instrument to be wrapped and kept ready to be picked up. Krishnan moves on to the next instrument, and throughout our hour-long conversation, percussion sounds are our pakka vaadhiyam.

Born into a musical family from Valangaiman, 42-year-old Krishnan learnt the art of repairing mridangams from his father.

Seated in the small shop, surrounded by over 50 mridangams, and framed photographs of his grandfather (a tavil vidwan) and uncle (a mridangam vidwan), Krishnan tells me how physically taxing and skilled his work is. “I picked up the intricacies in two to three years; it depends on your sruthi gnanam, as the job is all about tuning the mridangam.” The pitch and vibration, I’m told, is determined not only on how tight the leather straps are wound around the jackfruit-wood frame, but also on the condition of the leather, stretched over the mouth. “The iron-rich kittaankallu and rice mixture is applied over the black circle in the centre and rubbed till it develops cracks, like parched earth. It’s the thickness of this coating that will determine the timbre of the mridangam,” he explains.

Mridangams are very sensitive to temperature and light, Krishnan tells me, adding that vidwans often tune four or five instruments and keep them ready. “The vidwans can do small adjustments at home, but to tighten the ropes or season/ replace the hides, they bring them here.” It takes several days to completely re-condition a mridangam, as each side needs to be worked on, and then sun-dried. “Our work gets affected when it rains; it makes the leather damp,” says Krishnan. In a week, he can, with his helpers, get about ten mridangams ready. “The kutcheri season is our busiest time; it’s like Diwali for tailors! People come from other countries, to get their mridangams repaired; who can do all this abroad?”

“During the music season, we’re here for 12 hours a day. The money is better now, but then raw materials are getting dearer too. The leather that used to cost Rs.100 now retails for Rs. 500.” But the wood, Krishnan tells me, lasts several generations. He points to old instruments in the stack behind us, the wood a rich, coffee brown, which belonged to famous vidwans. “I can’t tell the age, but it must be at least three generations old. To keep them in working condition, all you need to do is change the hides.”

Does he play the instrument? “No,” he smiles, “but my sons do. One plays the mridangam, and the other learns Carnatic music as well.” And so music lives on, in Navaneetha Krishnan’s family.

(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)

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