Monday, 20 August 2012

Pocket guide to Carnatic music


Carnatic music, like many other Indian art forms, formed a strong part of temple rituals. The great vaggeyakaras of Carnatic music often composed songs at temples, directly addressing the presiding deities. The nagaswaram, the grand wind instrument of Carnatic music, has a hoary past closely intertwined with that of temple rituals, with hardly any ritual complete without nagaswaram music. Today, the temple as a centre of classical music is fast vanishing, and nagaswaram music at temples is offered in a much-diluted form wherever it has not already disappeared.

The glorious art of mallari on the nagaswaram has been a prominent casualty of progress. Mallari is an old, traditional form of temple music in south India. It continues to be played at very few temples, and not necessarily in its original form. Requiring intense and extended practice for years, the original mallari was a complex art, with clear rules on what was to be played when and how. Musicologists and musicians like BM Sundaram and R Vedavalli have taken much trouble to research the history of mallari, interview veteran vidwans of the nagaswaram and tavil and record their thoughts on the art.

Worship through music was a way of life in south Indian temples in the 15th, 16th and 17th centuries. Music was considered one of the 16 types of offerings to God (the shodashopachara) as part of the puja at temples. The rituals start at the crack of dawn and continue all day long until the lord or devi is put to sleep at night, with appropriate music every step of the way.  Considered the loudest brass instrument in the world, the nagaswaram is, or rather was, heard all over the villages and towns surrounding temples. The sound of the nayanam (the nagaswaram accompanied by the tavil) acts as a wake-up call or announcement in the whole vicinity of the temple.

During temple festivals, nagaswara music accompanied every ritual from the abhishekam or ceremonial bathing of the deity in water, milk or other libations, through taking the deity out on a procession to putting it to sleep. Each occasion demanded a specialized mallari, played in a stately gait in the raga Gambhira Nattai, to create the effect of a procession. The raga has five notes each in the ascent and descent. Once played on the timiri or smaller nagaswaram, requiring great lung power, mallari moved on to be played on the bari or longer nagaswaram of today. In addition to the tavil, mallari also has kaittalai (a kind of cymbals) accompaniment.

Some mallaris:

The mudal or first mallari is the opening mallari in tisra, followed by the periya mallari in adi tala. Next comes the purappadu, literally the start of the deity’s journey, followed by periya mallari in chaturasra triputa or adi tala. The ter (chariot) mallari is played during the procession, in chaturasra triputa tala in khanda gati, with five syllables for every beat. The tirtha mallari accompanies the ritual bathing of the deity. This is set to misra chapu tala. Finally when food is offered to the deity as naivedyam, the taligai (culinary) mallari is played.

There are exceptions and variations according to the occasion and at different temples. The palli arai mallari is reserved in some Vaishnavite temples for the retiring deity, in the form of the beautiful laali oonjal, swinging the deity to sleep. All in all, mallari is a delightfully varied form of ritual temple music played on the nagaswaram, unfortunately on the verge of extinction as an art form.


  1. It is not 'sadopachara'. Instead, it is 'shODashOpachAra'.

    'shODasha' in Samskrta means 'sixteen'.

    1. Thank you for the correction. It was a mistyping that has now been corrected.