Maratha Migration, Mridangam and Melodies in Story Telling

The cultural diversity of India is famous, with each state boasting of its own form of music, dance and theatre. There is plenty of evidence of art forms evolving as a result of foreign invasions forcing disruption in culture, among other things. Hindustani and Carnatic forms of music have always exchanged ideas and to this day there is research about the origins of melodic scales and instruments.

The mridangam is the star percussion instrument of Carnatic music. No kutcheri (a performance of the Carnatic art form) is complete without a stunning tani avarthanam (percussion solo) by the mridangist. There are two schools of Mridangam — the Pudukottai school and the Thanjavur school. The parent instrument of the Pudukottai style is the thavil, which continues to be extremely popular in folk music and theatrical performances of Tamil Nadu. The Thanjavur style, however, has its origins in the Maratha kingdom. Towards the end of the Mughal rule, the Maratha empire expanded greatly taking up large regions of Tamil Nadu. Shivaji’s brother Venkoji established the Maratha kingdom at Thanjavur. Starting then, all the way up to mid-19th Century, there was an influx of Marathas into Thanjavur and neighboring districts. They are referred to as Rayars and speak a dialect called Thanjavur Marathi. They brought with them their folk music and bhajana sampradaya. The Abhangs of the Marathi people greatly influenced the art of musical storytelling or Harikatha in Tamil Nadu. The attractive metric of their verses and the style of bhajans was soon incorporated in the kathakalakshebam (Harikatha) performances. An official of the Maratha court called Venkatadasa was principal in amalgamating the tunes of the Marathas with the music of the south. His disciple was Thanjavur Krishna Bhagavathar who is considered as the Father of the Harikatha art from. Their bhajan culture went hand in hand with the essence of bhakthi often portrayed in the stories of Harikatha performances.

Percussion is an integral part of bhajans and the drum that was used to infuse rhythm to their songs is the precursor to the present day mridangam. It became a little lengthier and the complexity of the structure was increased to produce subtler sounds. The first generation mridangists like Narayanaswamy Appa were Marathis and played the mridangam at bhajan sessions. Their disciples continued to incorporate the rhythmic phrases and accompaniment philosophy of the bhajan culture; infusing their new thoughts and creative expressions at the same time. Today, the two schools have almost merged after years of collaboration and exchange of ideas. However, for the sake of academic curiosity, connoisseurs continue to trace back different patterns played on the mridangam to the thavil or the Maratha mridangam.

The Maratha way of rhythm was incorporated widely in both Harikatha and mridangam. And of course, there are many vocalists that enthrall audiences with the Abhangs as a part of the mainstream kutcheris. Carnatic music, mridangam, harikatha — all are currently associated with Tamil Nadu to a large extent and the ancestry is usually traced back to various areas of Tamil Nadu. The next time you are at a Carnatic concert or kathakalakshebam, remind yourself of the important contribution of the Marathas and how art has always been enriched by the fusion of cultures.