The History of the Balaram Mridangas
By Ishan das
My name is Ishan das. I created the Balaram mridanga in L.A. It is really quite a story. But I’ll give you the brief version.
Some time in 1972-73 Srila Prabhupada saw that the East Indians were not carrying on the tradition of making the original mridangas and kartals. The younger generation who would normally take over the arts from their fathers were becoming more and more interested in going to school and going to the cities. They were thinking that working with leather making the drums and such was a lower class of activity. So Srila Prabhupada sent out a letter to all the GBCs indicating that some men should be sent to India to learn these arts.
At that time I was in the temple of Jagadisha who was Srila Prabhupada’s Minister of education and a GBC member. Somehow by being alone in Jaggadish’s office I glanced at what was there on the desk, etc. and saw a letter expressing Srila Prabhupada’s desire in this connection.
That was all I had to see. This was the project for me. It was a way that I could do something that Srila Prabhupada wanted done. Jaggadisha sanctioned my participation in this adventure. But I would have to raise my own fare. Because I was married and had one child, the decision was made that Brajadevi would go to Gurukula in Dallas and my wife and I would go to India.
I have never been very adept at raising money. I did have in my possession a set of the three Bahagawatams that Srila Prabhupada had brought from India. I sold the set for about $200 dollars to a man who used to visit the Toronto temple. When I returned to Canada, after my time spent in India, I begged that man to please, please sell them back to me. But he would not hear of it.
In that letter from Srila Prabupada, he also mentioned that he wanted some devotees to take up the practice of making “dolls”. All these things had to be learned from the masters or those arts in India. Srila Prabhupada had personally selected the teachers. The learning was to be done on our land in Mayapur. The professional drum and doll makers would come to teach the devotees, during the daytime and then return to their villages in the evening.
So I reached Mayapur Dham and began my learning process. There were about half a dozen devotees who had come from various temples in order to learn. For the drums there were two processes. The clay man made the shells, and the leather man made the drums.
Learning from these men was not according to the western way of learning. In the first place these men were very proud of their trades, and would not easily part with their secrets which were passed down from generation to generation. Secondly, they had a good thing going. Gargamuni Maharaja who was temple president in Calcutta, was in the business of taking charge of the drums that these men were making, and then shipping them to the west as a way of raising funds and helping the movement. One of the men later confessed to me, “If you learn how to make these drums, our jobs are finished.” So they had a vested interest both in sharing the skills , but not sharing them too fast. There was a language problem as well. These were Bengalis and we were English speaking.
Another issue in regard to learning from these men was that in India, the teacher took the position of a guru, and the student became the apprentice. In other words, the student was, according to their culture, to become a menial servant, in all sincerity. I would bring these men water to drink. I would bring them prasadam. And I was the gofer. With the clay man, I had to take the clay that was dug out of the fields and minutely remove, by hand, every little twig, splinter, and grain of sand. And this I had to do in a crouching posture. This was no picnic.
As far as the leather man was concerned, when someone came from a local village with a freshly removed skin from a cow, someone had to clean it. The skin was still wet with blood. It would be folded in on itself like a package. Then the bloody skin was placed in a gunny sack for transportation. And this is the way that the new skins were delivered to our land. Therefore my first task was to take the wet skin out of the sack and stake it out in the filed, fleshy side up, to be baked crisp by the sun. Then there were the packs of wild dogs who were beside themselves wanting to get at that skin. When the skin was good and crisp, there was the hair to be removed from one side, and the course layers of dry fleshy material to be removed form the other side. This was my daily routine. The teachers loved it. Not only because there was someone to do the Joe-jobs. But here was a white western person who was willing to be their menial servant.
Well the learning went on. Somewhere along the way, Gargamuni Maharaj found a more local source for a good supply of clay drums to ship to the west. Closer to Calcutta. Now I was a problem for him. If I learned how to make these drums, this could interfere with his drum business. So he told Bhavananda Maharaj and Jayapataka Maharaj, who were overseeing everything at our Mayapur project, that Srila Prabhupada changed his mind. He no longer wanted us to learn these arts. The whole process was then suspended.
Along the way, I remembered that Srila Prabhupada also wanted someone to learn how to make the “dolls” so that we could have exhibitions in the west. So I wrote to Baradraja, who I knew from 1968 in the Montreal temple, when it was run by Hansadutta Prabhu. Baradraj and I were friends before we came in touch with devotees. We were in a rock band together, and Baradraj was living in a rooming house that I was running, to bring the landlord some income. There were a lot of devotees living in that house, but we were not devotees until Hansadutta Prabhu moved into the building. From that house the following persons joined up. There was Baradwaja, Chandan Acarya, Sripati, and Gopal Krishna Maharaja. Gopal Krishna was very hesitant to move in with us. He used to say “I cannot move in with you, because I am too impure.” But finally he also moved in. Hansadutta was on fire and everyone around him became a devotee.
So I wrote Baradwaja and told him that Srila Prabhupada wanted this “doll” learning process to go forward. Very soon Baradwaj appeared in Sridham Mayapur, learning the art of making dolls that looked like they came from the higher planets.
By and by Srila Prabhupada inquired as to how the drum project was going. Srila Prabhupada was told that Gargamuni had said that Srila Prabhupada no longer wanted us to make the drums. Srila Prabhupada was disturbed and said he had never given such instruction. So it was back to cleaning clay and scraping skins.
The other boys who were there to learn the drum process used to come to the mridanga-making hut armed with clipboards. They would watch and ask questions through an interpreter. One day, one of the clipboard team, asked the teacher why he did such and such aspect of the process in a certain way. Why did he not do it in another way that this godbrother thought would be a good idea. The teacher did not look up from his work. He was sitting in his regular squat position. He looked at the ground for a little bit. Everyone was very quiet. then the teacher looked up and said to the interpreter, in Bengali, “My father did it this way.” That was that. He continued with his work, and continued giving me assignments. Clean this. Move that. Bring this. Scrape that.
Over time, I really developed a love for this man. He was a Bengali, maybe in his fifties or sixties. Maybe five feet tall, and extremely thin and wiry. His face showed his cheek bones and he had beautiful eyes. His black hair was oiled and combed straight back. His determination was was like steel, and he quietly went about his activities. He had seen all that life had to show him in this rural environment. He was a survivor. He had the demeanor of a fox. Quiet and patient, and knowing his objectives. He wore a white shirt and a small piece of cloth around his waist down to his knees. He wore no shoes when he worked on the drums. He had to use all hands and feet to make the drum. He would apologize to the drums for putting his feet on them. There was no other way.
One hot summer day in Mayapur, at the bamboo drum hut, we were working in the hut. The front wall was half open. It was about six feet by eight feet. And the dirt floor was raised so that we were about two feet above the outside land. The clipboard team was outside the hut taking notes. My drum guru, Jotinda, was working quietly. There were flies and he paid them no heed. there was the clipboard team and he paid them no heed. Then still in a crouched position, he stopped his work. His fine thin hands lowered until the leather knife he was holding rested on the dirt floor. A sly smile rested on his face. And one by one he pointed to the members of the clipboard team, and as he pointed at them one at a time, he made an announcement. “Mridanga mistree nay! mridanga mistree nay, mridanga mistree nay! ” Then he paused, and looked at me who was working beside him, in the hut, on some assigned task. His face wore one of his rare smiles, and he said, :”Ishan prabhu – mridanga mistree!” Then with one of his tools, he drew a map on the dirt floor. In the center of the map, was Sridham Mayapur. And all around the center were the other continents. And he said it once more, “Ishan prabhu – mridanga mistree!” It had the air of prediction, of giving me a blessing.
The work went on. Time passed. I learned the process, step-by-step. I completed my first mridanga, from start to finish, ghab and all. It was time. Srila Prabhupada was in Vrindaban.
I made the trip to Vrindaban alone, by train, and by horse-drawn cart. Raman Reti. the property was all dug up. Big holes in the ground for laying foundations. Boards and debris scattered. Big piles of earth beside the large holes. Srila Prabhupada was ill. It was summertime and the the nights were very warm. Srila Prabhupada chose to sleep on a cot in the midst of what looked like a war field. It was a war. A war against maya. And Srila Prabhupada was the commander-in-chief. I made my bed on a mat a few yards away. During the night I could hear Srila Prabhupada making sounds of distress. He was purifying the Dham.
A few days went by. Srila Prabhupada was getting stronger. He wanted to go on a morning walk, a short walk. He knew about my drum. I was told that I was to accompany Srila Prabhupada on his morning walk. We were a small group – maybe five or six. After a short time, Srila Prabhupada turned off the road and enterd an open field an sat down. We followed suit.
Srila Prabhupada asked his assistant if he had brought along a tape recorder. He hadn’t. Srila Prabhupada turned to me. It concerned the mridanga. I was ready, I said, to remain in India the rest of my life and make these drums for our movement.
Srila Prabhupada said, “It takes so much work to make one of these drums. And our men throw them down like pots. So go to the west. Use your western technology. Make a drum that they cannot break. And put a strong strap on it. The day will come when there will be big, big sankirtan in the streets. And the people will want drums. And we will give them drums.”
After a day or so, Srila Prabhupada had us come to his room. I was to bring my drum. Srila Prabhupada said, “Ishan has made this drum. We can have kirtan. Harikesh will play the drum” We had kirtan. Harikesh was delighted with the drum. He arranged to buy it from me.
The kirtan ended and Srila Prabhupada began to speak. “Ishan is going to the West to make mridangas. Where would you like to make these drums, London?” “In Los Angeles Srila Prabhupada. Los Angeles is the place where there is so much plastics industries.”
Jayatirtha, GBC, was in the room. Los Angeles was his headquarters. “I think he should go to London, Srila Prabhupada.” “London?”, Srila Prabhupada said. “No, Srila Prabhupada,” I said, “Los Angeles.” Srila Prabhupada looked at Jayatirtha. “Ishan will go to Los Angeles. Jayatirtha will give him all facility.” He looked at Jayatirtha, waiting for a sign of agreement. Jayatirtha agreed.
We had barely left Srila Prabhupada’s room and Jayatirtha descended on me. “O.K. Ishan”, he said, annoyance and hostility radiating from his face. “How much space do you need?” It was a very short discussion. I was to wait at the temple in Delhi. Jayatirtha would send me the travel funds from L.A.
Time passed. I waited. The funds never came. After recovering from malaria, I approached the Indian authorities, who in turn aquired the funds from my parents.
I went to several western temples canvassing for financial support for the project. Montreal, Toronto, New Orleans. It was a good idea, but results were slow in coming. Temple presidents thought I should do something more usefull.
From New Orleans I called Baradraj who was now settled in Los Angeles. He was given facility to have a “doll” making studio, with a staff of devotees. Srila Prabhupada wanted dioramas. Baradraj sent me the money to get a ticket to L.A. He would help me, give me some space.
Meeting Jayatirtha in L.A., he was not pleased. But I had reached L.A.
It was Karandhar Prabhu who really set things in motion. “Give me some figures, Ishan. How much space, what materials do you need, how much will it cost, how long till you come up with a product?” I submitted a detailed proposal. Karandhar funded the whole thing, himself. Even an apartmernt for my family.
Time went by. Maybe six to eight months. So many attempts. All failures. I would have given up. One thing kept me going. If I could do this thing, maybe Srila Prabhupada will be pleased with me.
Then it happened. I had a shop. It was set up. Ranadhir was my liason to the different suppliers. Metal rings, raw urethane, fiberglass shells, inserts, straps, heads from special molds made by Remo Drum Company. We had all the equipment, the materials. Production began. And so did distribution.
Meanwhile Rameswara put me in charge of the Bhakta program, the new Brahmachari ashram, and the kitchen. I needed help in the drum shop. I got one man. He was very sincere and gifted. He was on dialysys, regularly, but he gave it all he had..
In 1977 after Srila Prabhupada’s disappearance, all insanity came to bear. I was threatened with violence for naming it. Perhaps I made a huge mistake. I left the movement and the association of devotees. Sadhana with devotees, morning and evening. Participation in the Diety program. All gone. My service left behind, with one man to run the drum shop.
But the drums are still rolling out. I am so fortunate to have been a part of it. Actually, when the guru gives an assignment to a bhakta, the bhakta is empowered to do the job. Otherwise, how could a cripple-minded insect have come up with a synthetic mridanga, “a drum that the men can’t break”? So once more we have to say, “All glories to Srila Prabhupada!”