Nagaswaram vidwan T.S. Latchappa Pillai, director of Music Schools, Tamil Nadu, spoke to M.A. Bhageerathy (associate professor of Music, Queen Mary's College) at another edition of ‘Samvada,' at Raga Sudha hall a few weeks ago. He shared his experiences and answered questions on the techniques and other finer points about the divine instrument.

Excerpts from this informative session:

M.A. Bhageerathy: Should the instrument, which can be termed as the exclusive possession of Tamizh Isai, be called nagaswaram or nadaswaram?

Latchappa Pillai: Muthuswamy Dikshitar has answered the question. He mentions in his ‘Sree Raga Krithi' (Thyagaraja Maha Dhwaja Roha Tharaka Brahma Roopa) where he uses the word ‘nagaswaram.' We have to respect his deep knowledge of music and Sanskrit. Still it may be possible to fit the word ‘nadaswaram' also, to mean nadam that emanates from the instrument and projects itself in its various swara forms.

People talk of the Thimiri Vaadhyam and Bhaari Vaadhyam. What are these?

A difficult instrument, Bhari is of a very high pitch and played mainly in temples. I must mention the Thiruvarur Temple in particular in this connection. Thimiri logically is of a lower pitch. It may have been inspired by the special nagaswaram carved out of stone by the sthapathis (sculptors) who were working in the Thiruvarur temple. It had a lower sruti, was much easier to handle and hence provided a comfort zone for the players. It is used extensively today.

There is yet another category called Ida Bhari, which has as its range, a sruti that can be fixed between Bhari and Thimiri vaadhyams.

What about the teaching methods adopted? Can we compare it to the practice followed for other instruments?

Rakthi Melam, Pallavi and Mallari -- all these are important to nagaswaram. These genres demand not mere laya knowledge, but also a high level of standardisation. The learner therefore has to spend considerable time maintaining the beats at concerts, held mainly at temples (during my time). (‘Gathi sariyanal sruti sariyagum'). He imbibes through observation. Then Sarali Varisai is started. These and other alankarams have to be faultlessly played in three kalams.

The various styles of blowing, as distinct swaras, followed by akara and thathakara playing and the appropriate use of fingers (viraladi) will be gradually imparted to the sishya. A minimum of 12 to 15 years is required to acquire some level of mastery.

Can we say that the setting of the nagaswaram, the holes especially, has Harikhambodi as its scale, much like the flute?

The nagaswaram has 12 holes and is not set like the flute. Therefore, it does not conform to the Harikhambodi scale.

Playing the instrument can be likened to vocal singing. The voice is not set to any scale and one has to produce the swaras, play the alapana and all such in the nagaswaram, with an effort that would equal all concepts that apply to a vocal performer. That is perhaps the reason why nagaswaram playing is compared to the vocal performance and vice-versa.

Even in the short diploma courses on the nagaswaram that are term-bound, I used to insist on learning vocal music at least for six months as part of the syllabus.

We get to hear less and less of this noble instrument. How do we get back to that golden period of the nagaswaram, which artists like you must have witnessed?

In Tiruvarur, the temple festival was held for 25 days. The nagaswaram was played on all the days, a raga for a day and through the night.

Mallari was performed with four nagaswarams and plenty of thavils.

In the present scenario, temple festivals have been drastically scaled down. In some places, the nagaswaram is played briefly only during the final ceremony (deepa aradhanai). Well, I pray that the glory of the instrument is restored.

Latchappa Pillai had come fully equipped with the different kinds of nagaswarams he had mentioned – the mukha veena, the ivory nagaswaram the Bhari and the Thimiri and the various types of blowing devices (seevali).

He played snatches to demonstrate different sounds. An unmistakably positive approach that seemed to augur well for the mangala vadhyam.

(sivakumar2004@gmail.com)