Why is the Mrudanga so Called?

By the Late Dr V. Raghavan

The drum name mrudanga naturally excites one’s curiosity and one desires to know its significance and how the percussion instrument is called "an important part (anga) of whose makeup is mud (mrud)". The first explanation which jumps to one’s mind is that at one time mrudanga was a drum variety whose body was a mud pot or cylinder which had leather stretched over its face. Indeed, such mud-drums are in vogue among folks in some parts of the country. In fact, Vinayavijaya, a late commentator on ‘the Kalpa Sutra of Bhadrabahu’, says that both panava and mrudanga were mud-made:

Panavo mrithpataha:

Murajo mardala:

Mrudanga mrinmaya: sa éva 

But a close investigation of ancient Sanskrit texts would show the real meaning of mrud-anga, and give us the information what exactly this ingredient ‘mrud’ was and where it was.

 The name mrudanga was originally applied by Bharata to the drum called pushkara. Says Sarangadeva

Proktham mrudanga sabdena

Munina pushkara thrayam (‘Sangeetharatnakara VI 1025’) 

The pushkara, which was quite in vogue in Kalidasa’s time but not in Sarangadeva’s, was more fully called, as found in the above quoted line, ‘pushkara-traya’ – a three-faced drum. Its three faces – the right side, the left side and upward one in the middle – were tuned to different swaras in the three different ‘marjanas’: mayuri, ardhamayuri and karmamaravi (Natyasatra, Kavyamala edition XXXIV, pp. 416, 421). This drum was also called the bhanda-vadya and a small but very good sculpture of this three-faced vessel-like drum, with two faces on either side and one on top, with the divine player, is found straight in front of the shrine of Nataraja at Chidambaram, at the centre of the series on the high basement of the shrine having the urdhva-tandava figure of Nataraja.

Now what is more relevant to the inquiry on hand is Bharata’s description of the make-up of this tri-pushkara. In Natyasastra, Bharata goes on to describe the mrittika or mud. We are now familiar with the dark material, called "soru", made of powder of kitta-stone and gum of cooked rice applied in a disc form on the right side of the mrudanga. In Sarangadeva’s time too, some such material was applied but in Bharata’s time this was really ‘mud’, mrit, the fine bluish mud deposited at the waterbrink of rivers. It is this mud-application that really gives the sound to the drum-face and hence is the drum named after this essential ingredient mrit, the MRUD-ANGA.

Source: Bangalore K. Venkataraman (ed), Lecture Jewels’ Casket, Percussive Arts Centre, Bangalore.

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