Innovator makes mridangam, an animal skinless tabla

A singer, musicologist and physicist based in Bengaluru makes percussion instruments using innovative engineering materials and avoiding animal skins.

Dr K Varadarangan spent about a decade developing his instruments, many of which are now used on stage.

In an interview with Show time, he says he was driven by cruelty to animals to innovate and create synthetic instruments.

When did you first think of this idea? What scientific theories have helped your work?

As a vegan, it was unsettling for me to see animals being cruelly killed to serve our purposes. The mridangam, tabla, and other instruments are made from the skin of healthy cows, buffaloes and goats. As I had decided not to buy animal skin instruments, in 2010 I took an unconventional route to make a mridangam. Coming from a scientific background, I had a good knowledge of the acoustics of mridangam. Sir CV Raman theoretically analyzed the harmonics of animal skin mridangams decades ago. At the Indian Institute of Science, BS Ramakrishna had done a mathematical analysis to verify the variations in density of membranes used in percussion instruments. Following their principles, I decided to do a mridangam.

Tell us about the synthetic instruments you have created over the past decade.

At Karuna Musicals, we have made three varieties of mridangams (for men, women and children), three varieties of tabla (high, medium and low), one variety of khol – mainly used in bhajans – and one variety each of the dholak and the maddale. It took me five and a half years for mridangam, a year and a half for tabla, a year for khol and six months each for dholak and maddale. I then want to work on dholki and chande.

What challenges have you encountered?

Western drums are made from synthetic materials. I was wondering why mridangams and other Indian drums couldn’t be made from the same material. So I chose a graduated and thick polyester film to make mridangam skins. The instrument has an important part called a karane. Selecting the right material to make this part was a challenge as those made from polyester film peeled off. After struggling for eight months, I found that a bond of black rubber and polyester film was ideal for doing the karane. I have used this link in the mridangam and the tabla.

What are the advantages of using synthetic mridangams?

They only weigh around 5kg compared to the regular ones which weigh around 12kg. The synthetic mridangam features a sturdy nut and bolt system for easy adjustment. Drum heads have a longer life and can be easily replaced. Artists can do it themselves. The mridangam karanes last five to six years, unlike the traditional ones which must be replaced after three to six months, and sometimes even after each concert.

These mridangams are profitable. Their price is between Rs 10,000 and Rs 12,000 against Rs 20,000 to Rs 25,000 for traditional mridangams. Finally, these mridangams can be cleaned simply with a damp cloth.

Have percussionists started to switch to synthetic percussion?

About 600 artists across the country perform with these instruments during their concerts. Students practice synthetic mridangams and tablas. Some senior artists raised some objections, because they think my invention goes against our musical traditions, but many accepted it.

(Dr K Varadarangan can be contacted at [email protected])

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