Can science aid in enhancing the musical excellence of the mridangam? That was the question that mridangam exponent Umayalpuram K. Sivaraman put to T. Ramasami, currently Secretary to the Department of Science and Technology, six years ago.
The research took a long time and threw up some interesting revelations along the way about the limits of science and the amount of maths, physics and chemistry involved in building traditional musical instruments.
Mr. Ramasami shared some of the findings, after apologising with remarkable candour for speaking about science in the middle of the music season, while delivering the ‘K.S. Krishnan Memorial Lecture', organised at Krishna Gana Sabha on Sunday. Mr. Sivaraman, accompanied young vocalist Bharat Sundar and later, explained the nuances of his accompaniment in a short lecture-cum-demonstration. The maestro played using different types of the mridangam and explained the difference in tonal qualities.
To answer the initial question which started off a scientific pursuit, “The perfect mridangam that will be travel-friendly and which can be adapted to different pitches will soon be a practical possibility,” said Mr. Ramasami.
Some of the interesting facts that the research established were that the skin of goats from Bengal is the best for making mridangam because of its unique fibre weave. The materials used for the construction of musical instruments can be standardised using scientific tools and jackfruit wood – a wood of choice among traditional artists – is the best for designing the outer shell of the mridangam . “Science, as usual, revalidated common sense,” said Mr.Ramasami.
According to him, an attempt was also made to understand ‘melody' to see if “music could be brought within the reach of some more”. Using harmonic analyses, it was deduced that seven harmonics are possible in mridangam, but the “perfect melody” eluded definition.
The larger lesson, Mr. Ramasami said, is about the potential for interplay between science and the arts. “While scientists standardise, artists differentiate; while we discover and measure, artists create and feel. We can learn so much from each other,” he added.