My rhythms with percussion: How I entered the world of men to become a mridangist


Mridangam, which forms the basis of classical Carnatic percussion, has traditionally been associated with masculinity. But things are changing now, with Mridang players like Dandamudi Sumati Ramamohan Rao making their mark

Percussionist Sannidhi Vaidyanathan. Photo courtesy of the artist

My love affair with mridangam began when I was ten years old. Coming from a family of classical dancers, I’ve been kicking my feet to the beat – literally – since early childhood itself. Since I was born into a family of dancers, my first introduction to the performing arts was the classical styles of Bharatanatyam and Kathak. So initially I was dancing to a beat, not creating my own beats. Soon my parents discovered that I beat time on any flat surface. At first I started learning mridangam as a hobby to gain a holistic understanding of nritta. But very quickly the desire to invest myself completely in this astonishing percussion instrument completely overwhelmed me. My first guru was the incredibly talented maestro, Late Guru Sivakumar. Now I am trained to be an accompanying mridangist by Sri Ramamoorthy Sri Ganesh.

The mridangam, an ancient Indian instrument, is probably thousands of years old, as India has one of the oldest and most sophisticated rhythmic traditions. The exact origin is unknown, but the instrument exists in paintings and sculptures as early as 200 BCE. The mridangam is often depicted as the favorite instrument of Ganesha, the elephant-headed god. It is an interesting anecdote since I was born in “Ganesha Natyalaya”, founded by my dancer grandmother Padma Bhushan, winner of the Guru Saroja Vaidyanathan award. So, the encouragement I received from my family, especially my mother, the famous Bhartanatyam dancer and Sangeet Natak Academy winner Rama Vaidyanathan, was extremely motivating. Unlike many other female mridangists, I didn’t have to fight for approval for mridangam training.

During a performance.

My struggles were on another level. In a family of acclaimed dancers – my older sister, Dakshina Vaidyanathan Baghel, is a Bhartanatyam dancer – I had to work extremely hard to carve out my place, earn my own recognition and not be caught in the shadow of glory reflected. It can be difficult. As I was trained to accompany Bhartanatyam dancers, it is sometimes a difficult task when the hey, the rhythm and the nritta, the work of the feet is not synchronized. This offends my sense of sound aesthetics, which is even more difficult.

I am often asked if my lineage was my passport to a career as a mridangist. I feel like if you come from a musical family, you are exposed to different types of music and instruments. You can get the formation and then the initial platforms. But after that, you will only be able to grow thanks to your talent and perseverance. No dancer is likely to invite me to accompany them, including my mother and my sister, if I am not up to the task and in rhythm.


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In the world of Indian classical music, percussion is considered a virile art associated with masculinity. The fact that the mridangam is associated with Ganesha and Nandi highlights gender stereotypes of musical instruments. Traditionally, men have played the mridangam. But things are changing now and there are some extremely well-known Mridang players, like Dandamudi Sumati Ramamohan Rao. But despite all this, the acceptance of Mridangist women leaves much to be desired. In the art world in India, male artists dominate the scene and female drummers struggle to gain limelight even though they are extremely talented. There is a perception that women who play mridangam cannot maintain the energy or intensity needed for a two to three hour program. This is completely incorrect. If women can go into space, guard our borders, fly fighter jets, play mridangam is pretty simple. Although things are changing for the better, the mindset is still the same. In many parts of India, male artists do not like to share the stage with an accompanying artist. Girls are found playing melodic instruments like flute or violin, but in the rhythm section, women playing mridangam or tabla are still rare. Such stereotypes have been passed down from generation to generation, making it all the more difficult to break through the barrier.

The author (extreme left) during a performance on stage.

The fact that I didn’t have to fight for my place on stage thanks to the strength and influence of my family committed to the classical performing arts was a huge advantage. But it will also turn out to be negative, because I want to be known for my artistic abilities and not for my artistic family. Second, I want to be successful not as a Mridangist woman, but as a Mridangist. My gender shouldn’t be the reason for my success.

On September 2, I made my public debut at the Kamani Auditorium in Delhi. In front of a full house of more than 600 people, I presented for the first time the fruit of years of learning, hours of practice and numerous blisters on my hands. Oddly enough, I wasn’t nervous because, as my guru always told me, “if we respect art, then art respects you”. The mridangam is a very faithful instrument. If we treat it with the respect, persistence and focus it deserves, it will never let you down. That’s exactly what happened. It was a magical experience as the beat flowed from my hands onto the mridangam, keeping the audience spellbound. During the first half hour that I played solo, I exposed my audience to all the permutations and combinations of rhythms. Later, I accompanied Ganesh Natyalaya’s students in their countless performances, demonstrating my ability to be an accompanying artist.

I made my debut. Years of dedication and perseverance have paid off. In the years to come, I will have to prove my mettle as a mridangist to such an extent that every performance will be memorable for my mastery of the intricate rhythms and rhythms of the classical dance form. But, as they say, excellence is a moving target. I look forward to the time when I can improve my own standards.


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