Did you know that the renowned scientist C. V. Raman was obsessed with the workings of Indian musical instruments?
The man who won the Nobel Prize for his work on the scattering of light, also spent years studying the remarkable acoustics of Indian classical percussion instruments like the mridangam and tabla, leading to some seminal work in the area.
Between 1907 and 1917, the time period this story explores, C. V. Raman worked in the Financial Civil Services, as an Assistant Accountant-General posted in Kolkata, while also conducting research in a scientific organization called the ‘Indian Association for the Cultivation of Science’ (IACS).
C.V. Raman was interested in the ‘jugalbandi’ of art and science
The IACS was founded in Kolkata by Mahendralal Sarkar, a well-known Bengali medical practitioner, who was also physician to the famed Indian ascetic Sri Ramakrishna, the guru of Swami Vivekananda.
It is during this time that Raman delved deep into music. He was not a mere music enthusiast, he went much beyond that. Raman was interested in how sound and notes were produced to create a ‘jugalbandi‘ of art and science.
The interest in the science behind music had been around for a while. Around the 1890s, the noted British physicist Lord Rayleigh, later to be famous for his discovery of the element Argon in 1904, first conducted experiments on the vibrations produced by bells.
Raman was amazed at the acoustical knowledge Indians had from the ancient times
Inspired by Lord Rayleigh’s work, Raman’s musical pursuits led him into the chambers of the Indian percussion instruments, the mridangam and tabla. He was curious about what he considered ‘remarkable appreciation of acoustical principles’ prevalent in ancient India.
Raman set out to understand the physics behind the mridangam, which preceded the tabla, through a series of experiments in 1919.
Raman was keenly interested in the secrets behind the unique sounds of the mridangam
When he briefly shifted from the physics of music to optics, Raman of course made waves with the great work he did, especially with the ‘Raman Effect’. His discovery helped further explain phenomena such as the color of the seas and sky, fetching him the coveted Nobel Prize in 1930.
Raman found that the ‘Mridangam’ and the ‘Tabla’ had a sustained character in their tones. This was aided by two features which stood out in their construction-the heavy wooden shell on which the drumhead or pudi was stretched and the symmetrical loading of the drumhead with an adherent composition, known today as syahi, which is a secret mixture, said to consist of iron oxide mixed with charcoal, starch and gum.
The heavy shell and ‘secret’ syahi loading on a mridangam gave it its sustained tone
The heavy rigid shell in the Mridangam and Tabla were found favorable to the sustained vibrations and he found that the syahi loading of the drumhead greatly increased the energy of vibration, which caused the emission of a sustained tone. The shell also had a considerable amount of enclosed air, making the instrument sing with harmonic overtones.
Raman observed that inventors of the Indian drum had also accounted for the importance of equalizing the tensions wrought by the drumhead, as it was not a single piece of leather, but three layers of superposed skin. Exactly sixteen tension equalizers were used to maintain the integrity of the structure.
Raman’s study found that there is science behind almost every aspect of how these Indian drums are designed. The laying on of the syahi is an elaborate time-consuming process. The composition is put on layer-by- layer, and pressed down with a smooth piece of stone or metal. The thickness of the layer is greatest in the centre and thins down towards the margin.
The tonal variations of the drum were due to the syahi thickness and the kneaded dough on the drumskin
This explains the higher pitches towards the outer ring of the drum and the lower pitches as you move to the centre. When playing the instrument, however, the left-hand drumskin is also loaded with a piece of dough (kneaded wheat-flour), moistened and put on generously towards the center, to bring the pitch down to the desired value.
Raman in his study found that it was due to these reasons, that striking the drum at suitable points, resulted in the acceleration of 5 major tones. It also explained the distinct sounds of a mridangam, played with the heel of the hand, as opposed to the tabla, played predominantly with the fingers to provide tonal variations.
Apart from the Indian drums, C V Raman’s earlier experiments also led to him discovering the principles behind the design of the ektara, a single-stringed instrument, regulary used in devotional music.
Though Raman did study classical Indian string instruments like the veena and the tambura, as well as western ones such as the violin, his most important work was on percussion instruments. Here, he considered the European instruments of percussion as essentially non-musical. They were to be used in large orchestras or open-air setups, which they would envelop in a wall of noise.
Raman considered Indian instruments to be far more sophisticated with an ability to ‘sing’
According to Raman, Indian musical instruments of percussion, were more nuanced and aided the best singers or performers on the flute or violin well. This is what had first led him to embark on his study. He had always been intrigued with the sophistication in the music he heard.
In many senses C. V. Raman was a man of his times. It was the era of the curious and the boundaries between science and art, tradition and modernity hadn’t crystallised. His love for science as ‘entirely and essentially a human phenomenon’ also fed his curiosity about the arts.
C. V. Raman once famously said, ‘Ask the right questions, and nature will open the doors to her secrets.’
In his case, music did the same, opening the doors to its notes!
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