Techie percussionist Erickavu N. Sunil pens a unique book that delineates the science and aesthetics of the mridangam
When his prospective guru in higher studies asked Erickavu N. Sunil to present his talent, the teenager played the mridangam with reasonable confidence. “You have a good timbre and command over speed, but the fingering needs rework,” said Mavelikkara Velukutty Nair. The response hurt the boy, but he remained tenacious. In Thiruvananthapuram, 120 km south of his village near Haripad in Alappuzha district, Sunil knew he had found his mentor. “I was only 15 then, just out of school. Yet I had already been learning the mridangam for a decade,” he recalls. “My new teacher made me begin from scratch.”
Erickavu N. Sunil
The quest to master the mridangam prompted Sunil to migrate to the State’s capital, where he has lived for three decades now. Starting in 1992, Nair began mentoring Sunil at home, where the youngster would drop in from his college hostel. “If there are solid techniques underlying my artistry, it’s owing to my re-learning,” says Sunil.
When Nair died in 2012, Sunil was working with an IT firm, and was at the same time a busy concert percussionist. While the aesthetics of the mridangam continued to bewitch him, the physics of the instrument had also grown on him as a subject that he thought merited research. He embarked on this mission armed with a background in science and technology.
Sunil’s quest has now given us a book, the first of its kind. Resounding Mridangam: The Majestic South Indian Drum has eight chapters packed with content that ranges from profiling the instrument, the rhythms it employs, the various schools and major practitioners to, uniquely, its anatomy — as scrutinised by a techie.
The book cover
So, what prompted this exploration down untried corridors? Primarily, it was the syllabus for courses in mridangam across universities, says Sunil, who has topped percussion competitions at the Kerala and national levels. “Overall, 90% of the study material is uniform. Fair enough. But there’s rarely a mention of the science behind the array of beautiful sounds that the mridangam generates,” he says.
What’s more, Sunil noticed that there wasn’t yet a book that comprehensively covered the mridangam’s past masters. “Yes, there will be accounts of Dakshinamurthy Pillai (1875-1936) and the three celebrated 20th-century titans Palani Subramania Pillai, Ramanathapuram C.S. Murugabhoopathy and Palakkad Mani Iyer. But after them, each work only covers a slim list of maestros from the region,” he points out. “I decided to include more, and started to gather information on famous as well as somewhat obscure virtuosos from all over the peninsula.”
The book covers 217 stalwarts of the instrument. “I decided on 1950 as their cut-off year of birth. Those coming later are pretty well known in today’s Internet era,” says Sunil. “I will be adding more to the table in future editions. I have been getting valuable inputs lately, including from some unexpected quarters.”
Mridangam exponent Trichy Sankaran lauds the author’s use of his “extensive scientific knowledge to deal with the structure and physics” of the instrument, revealing the reasons for its tonal quality, nodal points, and harmonic vibrations. “Sunil discusses the evolution of the mridangam concisely,” adds the Toronto-based professor, terming the chapter on the rise of banis (styles) an “excellent addition”.
Aesthete Achuthsankar S. Nair, who heads the Department of Bioinformatics at the University of Kerala, praises the book for touching upon the harmonics of waves. “The study of microtones, which caught the attention of Nobel laureate C.V. Raman, finds a full discussion,” he says, acknowledging its appeal for curious physicists too.
Musicologist B.M. Sundaram describes the work as “painstaking”, while percussionist Karaikudi Mani praises the “well-thought-out and chronologically-designed narration on the nuances of layam”. Veterans A.V. Anand, Kamalakar Rao and T.R. Rajamani are pleased by the overview the book provides, as well as the micro-level nuggets of information. “The reader will require several years to assimilate the depths of the writings,” says vocalist Neyveli Santhanagopalan.
Sunil has ordered the 217 maestros chronologically. The roll begins with Marathi-born Narayanaswamy Appa, who founded the Thanjavur school of mridangam-playing in the 19th century. At the end comes Andhra Pradesh’s septuagenarian Dandamudi Sumathi Ram Mohan Rao, one of the rare women in the field.
“The book takes stock of the talams in Hindustani music too. Also, it gives the Western equivalent of quite a few keywords in Carnatic,” says Sunil. It was the author’s son Bhagath Sunand, an arts buff, who designed the cover.
The writer is a keen follower of Kerala’s performing arts.