Mastering the mridangam: student selected for 2014 Young Masters program


A double-headed drum most commonly used to accompany Indian classical music and dance has experienced a unique twist from its traditional roots. A project proposal by junior Jay Appaji pairs this drum, the mridangam, with tap dancing – an unexplored combination.

After developing the idea of the partnership from watching tap dancing videos online, Appaji proposed the project to the Texas Commission on the Arts. Now with the opportunity presented by the 2014 Young Masters Grant, he can use the $2,500 he receives each year for the next two years to pursue his musical endeavors.

“In the videos, I observed the relationship the tap dancers had with the music,” Appaji said. “I noticed that the tap dancer and the percussionist’s relationship was very similar to my art and my interactions with classical Indian dancers – I thought it was just a logical idea for them to collaborate.”

Until five years ago, singing was Appaji’s connection to his culture. As the pitch of his voice began to change, it became more difficult to continue. With the constant exposure to the mridangam at different concerts and performances, he decided he would take it up.

“I was just really fascinated with the rhythms and patterns the percussionists used and it really made me want to start playing it myself,” Appaji said. “I like it more than I liked singing because it gives me a better understanding of the relationship between the dancers and percussionists.  Throughout performances the two trade musical patterns, allowing the beats to get shorter and more intense as it goes on.”

Though most other recipients use the grant to attend reputable summer programs to further their musical studies, Appaji was the first to make such a far-reaching proposal. The process of the submission included a recording of Appaji playing the mridangam as well as a basic outline of how he would use the grant – how he would split up the costs from now until December of 2015 and ultimately put the collaboration into play.

“First I’m going to meet with my collaborator and I aim to practice and learn even more about the different techniques and rhythmic aspects to get a deeper understanding of it all,” Appaji said. “We’ll just continue to practice and put together a performance that’ll be presented at the end of the two years.”

Earlier this year, Appaji was given a scholarship to visit an annual percussive convention in Indianapolis to develop a more thorough comprehension of the art he wishes to pursue. Because of this opportunity presented by the Percussive Arts Society, his thirst for knowledge has grown even more.

“It was just a great experience overall,” Appaji said. “I didn’t actually get to perform there or anything, but just being around people who shared the same interests as me and seeing all the great performances really sparked my desire to explore other possibilities within this art.”

With intentions of pursuing the collaboration and musical studies throughout and after college, Appaji has high hopes for what is to come.

“The mridangam has given me the opportunity to learn of the musical conventions of my culture as well as the stage etiquette expected from performers,” Appaji said.  “Whenever I perform, the environment is always so positive because the crowd is very encouraging. These experiences have allowed me to explore other musical traditions and learn a little bit more about some of the cultural things they do – something I definitely want to learn more about in the future for myself.”