If there wasn’t the Mrdunga, there would be no such thing as the Mayapuris. We feel that it’s the best drum in the whole universe, especially for kirtan. That is our happy bias. Today we play other instruments, like tabla, flute, harmonium, etc, but the mridunga was the first instrument each of us, the Mayapuris, learnt to play. Actually, my mother played mridunga often when she was pregnant with me, so I began to learn the rhythms from within the womb. The first mridunga I played was a nicely decorated Quaker Oatmeal box, with a strap attached to it. Kish practiced on a wooden block for years, because his little arms couldn’t reach both sides of the mridunga. In fact, Kish’s dad remembers him playing on one side, ti ti ti, then crawling to the other side, ta ta ta.
There is a mridunga pranam mantra that I learnt from my teacher, Bablu Mashai, whom I studied under from the age of ten. We would chant thismantra before each class to offer respects. The mantra begins by offering respects to Caitanya Mahaprabhu, the founder of kirtan, who also invented the mridunga five-hundred years ago. Earlier they played big heavy wooden drums. Instead, the mridunga makers used the clay from the nearby banks of the Ganga to create a light-weight drum. “Mrid” means clay and “anga” is body, so literally clay-body. It’s the primary instrument in Gaudiya Vaishnava kirtan, the kirtan of Western India, the style that our music is rooted in. Bhaktivinode Thakur, a scholar and poet from the Gaudiya tradition, says, “When I hear the sounds of the mridunga, all my worries, all my problems and sorrows fly away like crows at the sound of thunder, and my heart dances in ecstasy.”
Another interesting point of the mridunga is the range from the small, high side to the larger, low side. There is a symbolism inherent here as well; the sweet sound of the high side represents the feminine energy, or Radhe, and the low, bass side is the masculine energy, Shyam. Practically speaking, it’s a very dynamic drum. It can be played very softly and sweetly with lots of intricacies, and also very loudly with full vigor and passion. You can sit with it, dance with it, walk, and twirl with it. It’s the heart-beat of the kirtan.