(First published in The Bengal Post)
It has been a brilliant lecture demonstration by Dr. Kanniks Kannikeswaran at the Music Academy on the great Muttuswami Dikshitar, one of the revered Trinity of Carnatic music composers of the 18th century and dhrupad. (The scholars present question the validity of his claim that Dikshitar was influenced by dhrupad in his compositions, as TM Krishna points out in his comment below).
I then enter the academy’s main hall, where Vyasarpadi Kodandaraman is drowning a sparse audience in vintage nagaswaram music.
According to a Wikipedia definition, the nagaswaram is the world's loudest non-brass acoustic instrument. “It is a wind instrument similar to the shehnai but larger, with a hardwood body and a large flaring bell made of wood or metal.”
To me, like millions of other 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.
There is a close link between the nagaswaram tradition and hereditary barbers. Hardly 40-50 years ago, when it was still common for the family barber to come home to do the honours, he also greeted you first thing in the morning on Deepavali day with a few choice samples of nagaswaram music. My childhood was made traumatic by Ekambaram who not only gave me dreadful haircuts, but also managed never to play a tuneful note. He was invariably a rich man on festive mronings because every household tipped him generously to keep it short.
Some of the greatest artists in Carnatic music have been nagaswara vidwans, most notably Tiruvavaduthurai 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, whose centenary celebrations conclude in January 2011, was much influenced by the nagaswara bani, especially the lightning fast brigas—a kind of modulation—of Rajaratnam that lesser mortals consider impossible of achievement by the human voice.
The so-called pitamaha of Carnatic music, the late Semmangudi Srinivasier, the epitome of orthodox brahminhood, who had great reverence for nagaswaram music, 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 the days of his youth, unmindful of his audience or any embarrassment at a public show of his emotions.
Unlike the great shehnai maestros of the north, south India’s nagaswaram wizards are hardly known outside the region. 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’s procession 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. Unfortunately, many of them insist on artificial amplification to be on a par with other musicians, something they really do not need, something that detracts from the rich sounds of their instruments. Audiences no longer flock to nagaswaram concerts, with the decibellage as a result of microphone usage perhaps one of the discouraging factors. Despite efforts by the leading music organisations including the Music Academy honouring the best of them with awards, the public response to this supreme wind instrument continues to be lukewarm.
Still, sensitive and dedicated nagaswara vidwans like Vyasarpadi Kodandaraman and the glamorous Injikudi Subramaniam have remained true to their invaluable inheritance and play the purest kind of nagaswaram music despite pressures from the changing milieu. The wonderful Kambhoji raga suite that Kodandaraman unfurled before the privileged few who had assembled at the Music Academy hall a few days ago will linger in their hearts and minds for a long time.