Mridangam Narayanaswami Appa
One of the ancient Mahratta Kshatriya families was that of the Appas, who held high and responsible positions during the last Mahratta kings of Tanjore, as for example Kalai Rao Appa who was a Sirkheel of the State. Mridangam Narayanaswami was a native of Tanjore and belonged to the Jadhav Family.
When young he was a Copyist. He learnt the A.B.C. of Mridangam from Sivaswami Appa, the Mridanga Vidwan of the day. He was a good singer of different songs and tunes in a great variety; and his voice was rich and sonorous. He was gifted with a subtle, delicate but accurate Sruthi and Swara Gnana, the like of which is rare to be found. He had likewise, an inborn and special aptitude for playing on the Mridangam and his Gnana of Sruthi and Swara contributed greatly to his perfection in Laya and Tala and made him an original Mridangam Player.
His early training in the Art was at the Sri Maruthiswami Mutt at Mannargudi. Once, when he slept there, he dreamt that Maruthi appeared before him and directed that he should do Saturday Bhajana and invoke Maruthi and by so doing, he would realize himself. He followed the direction faithfully and received the Blessings of Lord Maruthi.
When Morgaumkar Ramachandra Bava, Kirtanacharya from Gwalior, and his son, Vishnu Bava, came to Tanjore and conducted Chathurmasya Kirtan, Mridangam Narayanaswami played and developed his art. Even in his teens, his Mridang was acclaimed as an appropriate and sweet accompaniment, so nice and clear without any harshness in the touch. His handling of the instrument was very gifted, the sounds produced were so melodious and he always played so much in conformity with the main artiste that the resultant rhythm was in perfect consonance.
Though it is very difficult to accompany on the Mridang a player on the Veena or the Jalatarang, he played with equal facility and grace as a valued accompaniment, alike with Vocal Vidwans like Maha Vaidyanatha Iyer, Patnam Subramania Iyer, and Thodi Sundara Rao, the Flute Vidwan, Sarabha Sastri, the Bhagavatars like Morgaumkar Ramachandra Bava, Krishna Bhagavatar and others, and with the great Vainikas, Veena Seshanna, Veena Vaidyanatha Iyer, Veena Krishna Iyer, the great Jalatarangam player Venkoba Rao and lastly Saranda Naik, the gifted player on the delicate instrument – the Sarangi.
By deep study of details and close application to the Art, he combined in himself to the maximum degree the ability for Suswara Gyan and Laya Tala Prasthar which were his original and unique specialities. Mridanga Vidwans who were his contemporaries were wanting in the nicety of his play of finger on the instrument.
He had organized a Bhajana of his own in his residence where all reputed Musicians, Vocal and instrumental, used to congregate and found what they failed to find elsewhere. His strength and courage of conviction acquired by industry and practice in playing on the Mridang made him bold and independent. He spoke chaste Marathi and read the Dasa Bodha of Samarth Sri Ramadas Swami, many times over. He was clean in his habits and a devout Bhakta of Sri Rama. He taught the art of playing on the Mridang to so many; but it is unfortunate that no one came up to his mark. It is noteworthy that he could both sing, and play on the Mridang at the same time, an accomplishment seldom found. He lived up to an advanced age and departed, leaving no descendants.
He always kept in readiness some 8 or 10 Mridangs accurately tuned to the several normal pitches usually met with in concerts. He felt that each Mridang was most resonant at one particular pitch and he tuned the several Mridangs to that pitch. He was unwilling to alter the pitch of a particular Mridang, lest it should lose its natural richness of tone. Nor did he ever tune the instrument at the commencement of a concert, because he was alive to the fact that a Mridang which was subjected to frequent strokes for the purpose of increasing or decreasing the Sruti lost its fine tonal value or sensitive response. He was quite alive to the fact that even the finger tips have their own share in the production of tone quality. He never subjected his fingers to any strain – for instance it is to be noted that whenever he entered a railway carriage, he never caught hold of the door lintel with his hand.
He had an imposing personality and commanded respect and reverence from all around him. He was encouraged and patronized by the Rajah of Ramnad and his brother Pandithorai. He was so highly appreciated in Madras when he played to the accompaniment of Krishna Bhagavatar of Tanjore, that the late Justice Subramania Iyer rewarded him in recognition of his great merits. He was the Stala Vidwan of Sethu Bavaswami Mutt and performed Sri Rama Navami under the patronage of Raja Guru Sethu Bavaswami. His handling of the Mridang was superb and admitted to be so, by all the great Vidwans, and his superiority in the art was never challenged. Whatever variety of difficult strokes he played on the Mridang, the resultant was perfect resonance. The sounds produced by either hand were mostly like those of thye fine Takara and reminiscent of the play on that instrument by the famous Nannu Miyan. His fixing of the flour on the left was such, that the sound produced was the exact Mandhra of the Adhara Sruti on the right, and the flour never fell off in bits, however long the concert lasted. He would play at the right time the appropriate phrases for the three Kalas, bring into clear perspective the short and long ones and end with a variety of Moharas. No one could detect any the least contortion on his face or in his limbs and at a distance one who looked at him would feel he was looking at a beautiful painting. The fingers of the hands alone moved with perfect grace and the rest of the limbs remained motionless. He was the first to raise the profession of a Mridang Player to a high pedestal of regard and made it worthy of emoluments. He always played Mridang to the accompaniment of two Tamburas in the hands of his two disciples, Yoganath and Swaminath.
He enjoyed the best in life. He was regular in his habits and took only choice viands. He lived a royal life, and died about 30 years ago.