Commencement of formal training in mridangam is usually marked by a puja ceremony to Lord Ganesha, the god of auspicious beginnings. The teacher may pass the instrument to the student in a special way signifying the acceptance of their relationship and all that it implies. In the case of mridangam, the drum is held vertically with the outstretched fingers under the braiding of the valandalai (right-hand head), and the student accepts it in the same manner. The first lesson is also a special one, likewise dedicated to the elephant deity.
'Pillayar Padam' (lesson dedicated to Pillayar, or Ganesha), contains every stroke used. Although obviously beyond the capabilities of the raw beginner, it is important that the first thing learned should be this ceremonial offering of the sounds of the drum to the deity of beginnings. As in all the lessons, the student imitates as well as he can the teacher's hand position and tone. One of the most important things that the student has to maintain is that he or she should try to perform things beyond his present ability, to exceed himself in technique.
The sounds produced on the mridanga are of two basic types: damped and undamped. Given the complex construction of the drum, which makes it capable of precise pitch, it is more accurate to say that the two types of sound produced approximate either noise or pitch. Fourteen main strokes are used in mridanga playing as performed by T. Ranganathan. Three have individual names, and the rest are referred to by seven syllables (generically called solkattu).
The fourteen strokes are as follows:
Named strokes (3): gumiki, cappu, araicappu
Strokes indicated by syllable (11):
Nam (2)__Dim (1)___Ta (1)
Presumably, such syllables were originally meant to imitate the sounds of the strokes to which they referred, but with time the use of syllables became more complex. Single strokes are combined into stroking patterns, and, thus, single syllables are combined into euphonious, easily recited syllable patterns that indicate such stroking patterns.
A distinction must be made here between a syllable that is being used to refer to one of those main strokes and that syllable when it is used in a syllable/stroking pattern. In a pattern context, for instance, the syllable Ta is used for eleven different strokes. On the other hand, one stroke can be referred to by a variety of syllables. One damped right-hand stroke, for example, may be called Di, Da, Du, Ka, Ki, Ku, Mi, Gi, or Ta. The choice of which syllable to use depends on the context- the syllable pattern. In addition to their purely rhythmic configuration as duration structures in time, the patterns have qualities of pitch, timbre, intensity, a kinesthetic feeling related to their physical production and a vocal form in the shape of spoken syllables. These patterns are usually not heard in concert, but they are always in a drummer's head.
The basic idea behind rhythmic development in Carnatic drumming is to take a set of primary materials - the existing storehouse of patterns and forms, and constantly rearrange, change, and extend them. In this respect, development in rhythm is like development in melody. For example, a germinal stroking pattern can act as a motive for seemingly inexhaustible possibilities. To begin with, one germinal pattern can be used as the basis for compositions in several talas. Subdivisions within the tala cycle are marked with a single slash, and the end of a cycle is marked with a double slash-for example, Adi tala: 1 2 3 4/5 6/7 8//; Khanda Capu tala: 1 2/3 4 5//. All strokes shown within a count are of equal duration unless otherwise indicated. A segment of time of that duration that is not filled by a stroke is indicated by a dot: the duration of equals the duration of Tanata. (A dot beneath a letter is part of the transliteration of the letter; it has no rhythmic significance.)
A mora is a cadential phrase that is played three times and ends on an important count of the tala- either sama (count 1) or eduppu, the count on which a composition begins. Cross-rhythms are created purposely in a mora because each repetition begins at a different moment in the tala cycle. Moras can be quite symmetrical and complex. The phrases can even be of different lengths, as long as the essence of mora is kept-the pull of cross-rhythm and its resolution at the appointed place.
Students beginning to study mridanga learn to produce the basic strokes, then basic patterns. From the earliest lessons, they learn the principle and technique of playing in levels of speed (the only means of acceleration allowed in Carnatic music). At a later stage of training, the student of mridanga begins to put the ideas of germinal motive and gradual elaboration into the framework of a tala. He also learns how to create other shapes. For example, he may start with a long pattern and gradually reduce it. This is called gopuccha, the shape of a cow's tail - thick at the beginning and tapering to thin. These shapes can be used in the mora.
This brief introduction to Carnatic drumming, specifically mridanga drumming, gives only a glimpse of a most complex subject. The drum syllables lead a life of their own, so to speak. The stringing together of longer patterns depends on aesthetic and euphonic conditions, the practice of representing rhythmic pattern by spoken syllables is more than a science, it is an art, and it is entirely concerned with the beauty of sound.