Song of Surrender

Monday, 19 March 2012

The magic of the nagaswaram

By Wordcraft

According to a Wikipedia definition, the nagaswaram is the world’s loudest non-brass acoustic instrument, “a wind instrument similar to the shehnai but larger, with a hardwood body and a large flaring bell made of wood or metal.”


To south Indians, no ceremony or festival is off to an auspicious start without a nagaswaram preamble. Historically, the Nagaswaram accompanied by the tavil for percussion has always preceded the temple idol taken out in procession. It is therefore naturally an open air instrument, which explains the need for its loudness.

The great practitioners of the art of nagaswaram playing have belonged to families steeped in it, several of them in different parts of Tamil Nadu, most famously in the rice belt of Tanjavur on the banks of the Kaveri, the legacy being handed down from generation to generation through the centuries.

Some of the greatest artists in Carnatic music have been nagaswara vidwans, most notably Tiruvarur Rajaratnam Pillai who has had arguably the most seminal influence on most of the finest exponents of south Indian classical music, especially the major vocalists of the 20th century, and even some of today’s stars. One of the most charismatic singers of yesteryear, GN Balasubramanian, was much influenced by the nagaswara bani, especially the lightning fast brigas—a kind of modulation—of Rajaratnam that lesser mortals considered impossible of achievement by the human voice.

Semmangudi Srinivasier, the epitome of orthodox brahminhood, had great reverence for nagaswaram music. He was fond of telling the story of how he often crossed the Kaveri to listen to the incomparable music of a stalwart nagaswara vidwan, though past his best and under the influence of alcohol most of the time. Semmangudi’s eyes invariably misted over as he remembered those formative days of his music.

In addition to Rajaratnam Pillai, there have been many other magnificent exponents of the art—Karukurichi Arunachalam, Shaikh Chinna Moulana Sahib, the Tiruveezhimizhalai Brothers, the Semponnarkoil Brothers, and Namagirpettai Krishnan to name but a few. It is along with tavil playing perhaps the only branch of Carnatic music dominated by non-brahmin musicians, one that also features Muslim practitioners.

Nagaswaram and tavil are endangered species. Many of the best traditions of the art are rapidly changing and lack of glamour is driving many young inheritors of the legacy to seek other professions. Temples in the state have been invaded by light music, with hardly any classical music concerts being hosted there, and the grand mallari to herald the lord’sprocession getting diluted over time.

The ubiquitous electronic sruti box has virtually replaced the old-fashioned ottu, the smallish nagaswaram look-alike that acted in the past as a drone to maintain the pitch. The compulsion to enter the concert hall from the temple grounds of the past to earn a livelihood as musicians has forced artists to adapt several aspects of their music to suit the changed environment. Audiences no longer flock to nagaswaram concerts, with the decibellage as a result of microphone usage perhaps one of the discouraging factors.

(Excerpted from Carnatic Music: a Pictorial Guide for the Intelligent Music Lover)

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