P. Subramanian threw the spotlight on many forgotten folk musical instruments of Kongunadu

Every evening, after a hard day’s work, the village-folk would sit on their thinnai and play the udukkai. The sound gave them new energy. “This practice can be seen even today in Kongu villages,” said P. Subramanian, emeritus professor, Arulmigu Palaniandavar College of Arts and Culture, Palani. He was speaking on the folk musical instruments of Kongunadu as part of the Vanavarayar Foundation’s monthly lecture series.

Folk music is entwined with the lives of people in rural Kongunadu, said Subramanian. “Births, deaths, weddings, harvests…there’s song and dance for every occasion. Musical instruments are played to express deep-rooted emotions.” Folk music does not have written notes. The music, played by simple people in an open ground, is all about blissful abandon, he added.

It was Ilangovadigal’s Silappathikaram that gave oral tradition a written from, according to Subramanian. “Of the 31 types of animal skin instruments mentioned in Adiyarku Nallar’s commentary on Silappathikaram, 10 varieties are used even today. In some cases, the names of instruments are not known even to the musician.”

Festivals in villages are never complete without folk music. The thiruvizha in Annamar temples unfolds amidst the resonant beats of the udukkai. And the pambai is inseparable from the rituals in Angalammal temples, explained Subramanian, as he showed slides of photographs of folk musicians taken during his field visits.

He explained how instruments such as the thappu are being played in stage events these days. “Educated village girls are coming forward to perform folk music on stage,” he said. While some instruments are lightweight, instruments such as the thudumai are quite heavy. The musician fastens the instrument around his waist and plays continuously for hours, he added.

The kavadi festival in Palani is where folk music is at its best. Subramanian spoke of how the kavadi procession is led by men playing the thappu and thidum.

Then, there is the sikkattam where a group of men dance in a straight line. The footwork of the men, the rhythmic beat of the instruments, the excitement in the air….the onlooker can’t help but join in. “Some instruments have a hypnotic effect on you. There have been instances during field work when I’ve joined the dancers. My students had to drag me away!”

Folk music provides a stage for men and women to dance together. A lot of women who shy away from dancing in general, will not pass off an opportunity to dance to the beats of the thappu or parai, he said. The nagar is yet another instrument that’s a favourite among youngsters. Every evening, at around 7, the village youth play the nagar together.

According to Subramanian, the perum parai is found only in four places in the Kongu region. “The kanjira, used in classical music, is disappearing too. This is because, the instrument in made from the skin of the monitor lizard.” Instruments such as the udukkai are used to tell stories through songs in Annamar temples, he explained.

Subramanian also showed pictures of wind instruments such as the magudi that snake charmers wield. “There is a bitter pei surakkai at the centre of the instrument. This is believed to keep snakes away,” he said.

The nadhaswaram made of stone, the 10-foot long thaarai that sounds like the call of the peacock… every folk instrument held a magic of its own, he said.