Nagaswaram once enjoyed a unique status in Carnatic music, but seems to have lost its sheen for several reasons including lack of patronage and social recognition.
Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer would at every opportunity invariably reminisce about the great nagaswaram and thavil players of yesteryears and how enriching it was listening to them perform during temple festivals.
It was an endless list. Nagaswaram music had Thiruveezhimizhalai brothers, Keeranur brothers, Semponnarkoil brothers, T.N. Rajaratnam Pillai, Thiruvidaimaruthur P.S. Veerusami Pillai, Thiruvenkadu Subramania Pillai and many others. Equally brilliant thavil players such as Needamangalam Meenakshi Sundaram Pillai, Iluppur Panchami, Kumbakonam Thangavel Pillai, Natchiarkoil Raghava Pillai, Needamangalam Shanmugavadivel and Valangaiman Shanmugasundaram Pillai accompanied them.
In vocal music, a “bani” (style) on the lines of nagaswaram emerged. But nagaswaram music seems to have lost its sheen for several reasons including lack of patronage and social recognition. Over time, this forced many descendants of these great schools to give up these arts. A few continue to carry on the tradition, but even the successful among them don't encourage their children to enter the field.
“It's not as if we don't want to pursue a career. My brother Selvarathinam learnt vocal music under Madurai Mani Iyer. But at the same time I must say that nagaswaram and thavil are yet to get their due in the music festivals. Nagaswaram concerts have been reduced to mangala isai in all these sabhas,” says T.P.S. Sundaranathan, a retired State government official and son of Thiruvenkadu Subramania Pillai.
When temples fell upon hard times in the wake of the breakdown of feudalism in the unified Thanjavur district, sabhas emerged as patrons of many of the classical arts. But nagaswaram and thavil did not receive adequate attention.
Noted thavil player Thanjavur R. Govindarajan agrees. “So many music festivals and only a handful of nagaswaram concerts. Though a few organisations including Sri Krishna Gana Sabha hold exclusive nagaswaram festivals, if you take the larger concert circuit, nagaswaram is still waiting for its legitimate space. Provide equal opportunity and you will see the difference,” he says while rejecting the argument that nagaswaram concerts should be performed in open air and not in chambers.
While Mr Sundaranathan and Mr. Govindarajan may be talking about the contemporary scene, the status of nagaswaram and thavil players was not particularly enviable in earlier times either. Nagaswaram and thavil players were not supposed to wear shirts in the old days. Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi has more than once said he quit learning the art after watching his teacher tying his shawl around his waist in the presence of an official of the Dharmapuram Mutt.
Agrees R. Gurumurthy, the son of S.R.G. Rajanna of the Semponnarkoil brothers: “My father did not like the subservient attitude expected of nagaswaram vidwans. Though I was keen on learning the art, he felt that there was no great future for the art. So he returned from Singapore, where he was working as an artist, to Mayiladuthurai only to ensure that we get good education,” explains Mr. Gurumurthy, manager at a private engineering college.
The Semponnarkoil school, known for rakthi melam, however, is being kept alive by sons of Mr. Rajanna's elder brother SRG Sambandham, who died recently.
While education has secured economic and social status for descendants of the great nagaswaram and thavil players, the lack of it among the artists is seen as one of the ills. “You must admit it. Though I enjoy a status as a much sought-after artist, I lack formal education. Most of my contemporaries are no exception. We need to follow other musicians who are well qualified,” says R. Govindarajan. Explaining why he has not encouraged his son to follow his footsteps Mr. Govindarajan said a secure future was possible only if he excelled in thavil playing.
“In the beginning, I suffered a lot. I reached this position only after years of hard work. There is no point in remaining one among many artists,” he reiterates. R. Vasudevan, son of Nathciarkoil Raghava Pillai, whose birth centenary is being celebrated now, echoes the sentiment. “I was really interested in learning thavil. But I left it half way because I was not sure whether I could reach the heights my father had achieved,” says Mr. Vasudevan, a former employee of the Land Development Bank.