Kalaimamani Sheikh Mahaboob Subhani and his wife, Kalaimamani Kaleeshabi Mahaboob, the top-ranked nagaswaram couple, are the true perpetrators of the famed Thanjavur ‘baani' popularised by their guru, Sheikh Chinna Moulana Sahib. They have been honoured with the title ‘Asthana Vidwans' (court musicians) of the Sringeri Peetam. Both of them hail from families that have produced nagaswaram players of repute. At a time when the nagaswaram has only marginal status as a concert hall instrument, this duo has strived to keep the rich legacy alive. Excerpts from an interview…

The legacy

Both of us are from Prakasam district in Andhra Pradesh. My father, Kothapalli Sheikh Meera Sahib, and my maternal grandfather, Nadhabrahma Nadaswara Ganakala Prapoorna Janab Sheikh Chinna Peer Sahib, were masters in their own right. It is said, and it is there in our family record book, that one of our grandparents struggled with his music lessons. He was so badly beaten up by his father that the boy ran away from home and took refuge in the nearby Munivandamma Temple. The story is that the goddess appeared before him and blessed him with the gift of nagaswaram music, not for a lifetime but for the next seven generations. That generation ended with my father; we move on with the blessings of the goddess.

Kaleeshabi also comes from a family of musicians. Both her father and uncle were nagaswara vidwans. She was the only child in the family and so instead of sending her to school, her father and uncle trained her to play the nagaswaram.

The beginning …

Both of us began playing the nagaswaram at the age of seven. But circumstances forced me to study and take up a clerical job in a tobacco company. Of course, I did play with my father, Sheikh Meera Sahib, in a few concerts. For Kaleeshabi, who is my aunt's daughter, music was full time. She used to accompany her uncle Sheikh John Sahib for performances even at a young age.

Forming a team

This happened after our marriage. In fact, the elders in her family wanted a man who would encourage her art. I had already decided on my career but I promised her that I would support her. After our marriage, Kaleesahbi insisted that I try and give it a shot once again, this time as a team. The idea was that if it did not work I would go back to my job and she would set up a tailoring unit. Even before our marriage, the nagaswaram duo Sethuraman and Ponnuswamy had arranged a concert for us at Dindigul. We trained for two months and played at the Vella Pillaiyar Temple. This was our first concert as a team.

Training in vocal music

Right from those days, we train regularly for at least three hours. Before we met our guru Sheikh Chinna Moulana Sahib, we enrolled ourselves at Sarada Sangeetha Kalasala, Kurnool. Our teacher K. Chandramouli advised us to learn vocal music also and we even made an attempt at the formal examinations in music. He said that this would help us find jobs as music teachers. This vocal training turned out to be a huge asset.

Turning point

Kaleeshabi remembers: It must certainly be the Tyagaraja Aradhana at Thiruvaiyaru in 1981. We wanted to go with Chandramouli sir, but did not have the money for the trip. Moreover, I wanted to get back home to my little son who was in the care of my mother. But we finally decided to join our guru. There, we listened to the great masters in awe. On the last day, A. K.C. Natarajan, the clarinet vidwan, who was secretary of the committee, asked us if we could play for a short while. We did not have our nagaswarams but Sheikh Chinna Moulana Sahib volunteered to lend us his nagaswarams. Normally, we do not exchange nagaswarams even among ourselves and this coming from such a great man was surely our good fortune. The next day we were introduced to Chinna Moulana Sahib. From then on, till his death we stayed with him. The gurukulam training was for about 15 years. We went on to settle down in Trichy [Tiruchirapalli], close to the famous Srirangam Temple.

Women in this field

There are very few women in this field. Earlier, there was the legendary Madurai Ponnuthayi. Playing the nagaswaram calls for a lot of physical strain. I was lucky that I could accompany my father or my uncle. I also got a lot of encouragement during those fledgling days.

On being Muslims

Mahaboob: We have never thought about it that way, except on stray occasions. We have performed in many temples in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. At some of these temples, they have taken us inside and offered ‘prasadam.' We live and observe the Muslim traditions. We believe in one God.

Family

Two of our daughters are married. They did not take up music at all. Our son, Firoz Babu, has studied the nagaswaram. He has completed his MCA but we are not sure whether he'll continue our family tradition.

Teaching and disciples

We do have a few ‘shishyas' who we train without charging a fee. But there are very few takers for nagaswaram these days. Perhaps they feel that it is too tough for them and opt for something more easier. I have a student from Toronto who is keen to learn vocal music from me. I spend around two hours with him every day.

Performing for children with special needs

After a performance at the Rashtrapati Bhavan at the invitation of the then President Dr. A. P. J. Abdul Kalam, he asked us to visit schools for children with special needs and play for them. We have taken his words seriously. We have performed at such special schools on 10 occasions now. We interact with them; serve them snacks, which we buy for them. We realise how important it is to include these children also in our fold. It gives us such a lot of satisfaction, peace of mind.