Asmall shop is tucked away at the shaded turning across the Vivekandanda College road in Mylapore. In this space that doubles as a warehouse, at least a hundred different mridangams sit set for the fingers — 22-inch ones for women and 24-inch ones for the male singers, as the artisan and the owner points out.
“The smaller ones come in the sruthi ranges of 4, 5 and 6 which suit the women voices better, and their slightly larger cousins produce sound that match the lower sruthis of 1 and 2 to suit a male vocalist’s voice,” says Arogyam A, sitting down for a chat. A fifth-generation mridangam maker, he says there is a certain dignity the instrument commands from anyone who lays a finger on it.
Hailing from Thanjavur, where his forefathers also hand-crafted the instrument for ages, he keeps alive the art today, with his helpers working on different parts of the instrument — polishing the body of the hollow mridangam, stitching the three layers of skin on either side — which Arogyam informs, is made of cow hide. “We can modify the sruthi based on the thickness of these layers of skin,” he says. And finally, looping the holder-strings tightly, criss-crossing the body of the instrument. The process takes over seven days if done leisurely.
“But during months like December, or when a stream of orders comes in, we have to sit the extra hours and finish each piece in 4 to 5 days,” he says as he points to a newly crafted piece. There are also several antique mridangams, that carry yesteryear shades of wood — all made of jackfruit tree wood from Panruti — they all sit gathering dust, many here for repair.
When asked if today’s young musicians are dwindling, the answer jumps from his lips. “Not at all!” He explains that not only are younger players aplenty, there are also 4-5 women who come by regularly.
“There are also customers from London, Geneva and Canada who place orders, though we don’t advertise. The tradition still gets around, and people are genuinely interested. It is a satisfying trade and art,” smiles Arogyam.