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Strings, Winds & Beats- Double-headed Drums



In the previous two parts of this series, we talked of the tabla, India’s most popular percussion instrument. This time, let’s explore the world of double-headed Drums.

As earlier, I shall not go into too many technicalities and playing styles, unless really necessary. I shall focus on how the instrument is used in different genres, and mention the leading performers in each style.

Double-headed Drums or two-faced Drums are used in north Indian Hindustani music, south Indian Carnatic music and different types of folk and devotional music. In most cases, the player sits on the floor and keeps the instrument on his lap, though in some types of folk music, he attaches it with a strap around his shoulder.

The main instruments in this category are the mridangam, which forms a very important part of Carnatic music, and the pakhawaj, which was earlier – and is still – used in the dhrupad form or Hindustani music but is seeing rarer exposure today. The dhol forms an important part of folk music. A brief note on the various double-headed drums.

Mridangam: Known primarily for its use in Carnatic music, the mridangam is also heard in the Nepalese form of Newa music. However, while the Carnatic musician sits on the floor, the Newa musician stands and plays.

In Carnatic music, the mridangam can be used as a solo instrument with a violin accompaniment, or to accompany vocalists, violinists and flute players, among others. It is played with the hands. Often, it is one among the many percussion instruments used in a Carnatic concert. The others, which include the ghatam, kanjira and morsing, will be discussed in a later part of this series.


mridangam C


Besides Carnatic music, the mridangam is also used to accompany southern dance forms, particularly Bharatanatyam, and in theatrical dance forms like Yakshagana. Derived from the words ‘mrida’ (clay or earth) and ‘anga’ (body), the mridangam is said to have been played since the time of Lord Shiva.

Over the years, some of the best known players have included T.K. Murthy, Palghat R. Raghu, Umayalpuram L. Sivaraman, Karaikudi Mani, Vellore G. Ramabhadran, Palani Sunramaniam Pillai, Palghat Mani Iyer, C. Murugabhupathy and Mahadevu Radha Krishna Raju.

The mridangam has also been used extensively in south Indian film music by L. Vaidyanathan, Ilaiyaraaja, A.R. Rahman and others. It has also found a role in north-south fusion encounters, and in Mumbai, Sridhar Parthasarathy has often accompanied tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain and other percussion ensembles.

Pakhawaj: A variant and descendant of the mridangam, the pakhawaj is used as an accompaniment for various music and dance performances. It is also played with the hands.

In Hindustani music, it was primarily used as an accompaniment to dhrupad and dhamaar styles. The famous Dagar brothers were accompanied by pakhawaj greats like Govindrao Burhanpurkar, S.V. Patwardhan and Ambadas Pant Angle. Other players from the older generation include Ramashish Pathak.


Pakhawaj C


From the 1970s onwards, Bhawani Shankar has established himself as a leading pakhawaj player, accompanying instrumentalists like santoor maestro Pandit Shivkumar Sharma and flautist Pandit Hariprasad Chaurasia. Arun Saiwal, Gopal Das, Rahman Khan and Chattrapati Singh are other known players.

Legend has it that the tabla was created after cutting the pakhawaj into two halves.

Dhol: The dhol, and its variants dholak and dholki, is used in folk and devotional music from various states of India. Ranging from bhangra and Sufiana music of Punjab and the Sindhi dhamaal, to Ganesh songs and lavani in Maharashtra and the Navratri festival of Gujarat, to the music of Assam, Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh, Goa, Karnataka and Kashmir, it reflects energy and rhythmic vibrancy. Variants are also used in western Asia, China and east Asia.


Dhol C


Among the dholki players of Maharashtra, Vijay Chavan is currently popular. British Indian Johnny Kalsi has popularised the dhol abroad by playing with Transglobal Underground, Afro Celt Sound System and Imagined Village, besides his own group The Dhol Foundation.


Unlike the Carnatic mridangam and Hindustani pakhawaj, the dhol is played with a pair of sticks of different thickness, providing different tonal patterns. In some variants, the hands are used and the player wears a thumb ring to produce a unique sound

Other double-headed drums: Among the popular types is the khol, used in Bengali and north-eastern devotional music and played with the hands. It is also used in eastern Baul and Bhatiyali music.


Khol C


In south India, the thavil is played mainly at temples, but is also heard at public concerts. It is also used as an accompaniment to the wind instrument nadaswaram. For a right-handed player, the right side is played with the hand and the left with a stick.


Other double-headed Drums include the damroo, associated with the cosmic dance of Lord Shiva, the madal, used with dance and folk music, and the naal, which is tuned with bolts.


Madal2 C



Each of these drums has a charm of its own, and add to the variety and diversity of the sound.




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Narendra Kusnur

Author: Narendra Kusnur

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