Saturday, 21 April 2012

Praying for the gift of playing the nagaswaram

Sheikh Subhani and Khaleeshabibi Mahaboob at the Cleveland Tyagaraja Aradhana 2004

By Shankar Ramachandran

This is the first time the Cleveland Aradhana has included a full-length nagaswaram concert. The artists, Sheikh Subhani Mahboob and his wife Khaleeshabibi Mahaboob say they need at least three hours for a concert as it takes time for the wood wind instruments to settle down in these dry and cold conditions. And they cannot practise and warm up the instruments in their hotel room for fear of disturbing the other guests.

The mood created by the talented duo was contemplative throughout. The Natakurinji varnam preceded Hamsadhwani and Dwijavanti (Akhilandeshwari). Sogasuga mridanga talamu in Sriranjani was accompanied with a soft touch on the tavil. The Todi alapana was expansive and in the grand tradition of their guru Sheikh Chinna Moulana. They executed the difficult piece Chesinadella marachitivo O Rama Rama with a precision not found in many vocal concerts. The nagaswaram seemed to virtually speak the lyrics out aloud.

Many senior artistes were in the audience enjoying this soul fest—T.R. Subramaniam, T.N. Krishnan, T.M. Krishna, Ramnad Raghavan, and Guruvayur Dorai among them. During the tani, Vembu Muthukumar and Manickam Sankar showed their dexterity demonstrating that the tavil could be played softly and produce sounds of exceptional nuance and resonance. They ended the concert with the ten Bhaja Govindam verses in the ragamalika popularized by M.S. Subbulakshmi. Again one could sense the nagaswarams’ chaste enunciation of the Sanskrit verses of Adi Sankara.

Here was a Muslim couple playing Hindu religious music. The box that held the nagaswaram had pictures of Hindu gods. The couple were the asthana vidwans of the Sringeri Peetham. I was curious to know more about how this husband and wife team was introduced to this music. Did they know the words of the songs they play so soulfully? Do Hindu rituals also enter their lives at home?

We caught up with the artists backstage. The soft spoken, unassuming couple and the equally modest and quiet tavil duo sat down and spoke in a Tamil not adulterated with the usual English vocabulary.

Do you remember how you started to learn nagaswaram?

I was five or six years old when my father started including me in the lessons he gave other students. By age ten I was playing at concerts with my father. She (he indicates his wife sitting by his side with an affectionate nod) is my own Athai’s daughter. She was taught by her chittappa and by age nine she was also giving concerts.

How were you able to wield such a big instrument when you were so young?

We learned on a smaller nagaswaram. Within a couple of years we were able to play the full-sized instrument.

How did you come to be introduced into this life of playing religious Hindu music?

Our families have a story about this (he says with a smile) that is written in our family record book. It may or may not be true, but it is our family history. Eight generations ago one of our grandparents was a young boy in Saathulur in Guntur district. The boy did not do well in his lessons and his father punished him with a beating. He ran away from home in pain and hid in the nearby Munivandamma temple. That night, the Amman deity of the temple appeared before the boy and comforted him. It is said that she wrote a mantra on his tongue and blessed him with the gift of nagaswaram music, not only for his lifetime but also for the next seven generations to come. The seventh generation ended with my father. We are the eighth generation (smiles coyly). So we now pray to receive the blessing for the next seven generations.

Do you learn the music as swaras or do you also learn the sahitya?

We have to learn the words. Paattu cannot be learned and played by just learning the swaras. We are trained in vocal music and have learned all the pieces we play.

What religious traditions do you observe at home?

For us, all religions are one, but at home we observe the Muslim holidays and traditions. Our marriage was a traditional Muslim ceremony. However, my father asked me to tie the tali myself. Normally this is not done as the groom rarely meets the bride before the wedding, and the elderly of the house tie the knot. We were the first to set this trend and since then, all the youngsters in our family do it. At that time it was a big thing.

Are you satisfied with your concert today?

No (quickly with feeling). We had a lot of trouble with the dry and cold weather. The sivali (the removable mouthpiece for the nagaswaram) gets dry and it takes time to settle down. It is made from the leaves of the naanal thattai bush that grows along the banks of the Kaveri. The leaves are picked, steamed and dried and then the sivalis are made. If you buy a dozen, only three or four will be usable.

You say the art of playing the nagaswaram is going through a revival now with many colleges teaching the instrument in Tamil Nadu. What about the art of making nagaswarams?

Nagaswarams are made from the wood of the accha maram. It is very hard to find today. Beams from old houses being demolished are scavenged to make new instruments. It is a dark wood. The dark color of the nagaswaram is the natural color of the wood itself. All nagaswarams are made in Narsingapettai near Mayavaram where a family of two brothers are continuing their tradition of generations.

(Written in April 2004)

1 comment:

  1. Nice article,I want to mention that traditionally the nadaswaram artists who play in sri sailam temple in AP are from muslim families.They pray to shiva everyday and play the instrument.Shiekh chinna moulana was an accalaimed artist too.And so very true,this instrument is very difficult to play.Thanks to sruthi,in these days I thought not many would listen to classical music,but where ever an Indian goes,he carries the flavor of Indian soil in his nervous system.No wonder Indians eat pizza with green chillies on it.