Thiruvizha Jayasankar, heir to an illustrious legacy of nagaswaram players, keeps alive the bani by infusing it with innovations that do not stray from the framework of classicism. He has also trained several players to preserve the music of the nagaswaram.

In the non-Brahmanical, high-density, concert-culture of nagaswaram, south India enjoys a legacy that goes back to a time even before the days of the colossus Thiruvaduthurai Rajarathinam Pillai. Kerala too shared this heritage from the dawn of the twentieth century under the stewardship of the illustrious Ambalapuzha brothers. In the long list of luminaries who promoted and popularised the genre of nagaswaram recitals, perhaps the sole surviving icon is Thiruvizha Jayasankar.

Jayasankar was immersed in the swaras of the nagaswaram from childhood onwards as the son of maestro Thiruvizha Raghava Panickar. The family shifted from Thiruvizha village in Alappuzha District to Kumaranalloor, Kottayam, five years after Jayasankar was born. Although Panickar was reluctant to channelise the child’s musical instinct towards the nagaswaram, Jayasankar opted for preliminary lessons in the nagaswaram under his grandfather Thiruvizha Sanku Panickar. He, later, received advanced training in the instrument under his father with whom he began playing in the temples of central Travancore almost on a regular basis.

Meanwhile, Jayasankar completed Ganabhooshanam in Carnatic vocal from the R.L.V.Music College, Tripunithura. He then joined the Sree Swathi Thirunal College of Music in Thiruvananthapuram for the Ganapraveena course.

With the blessings of the stalwart Ambalapuzha Sankaranarayana Panickar, Jayasankar shot to fame as an accomplished nagaswaram player. He was fortunate to be appointed staff artiste of All India Radio, Thiruvananthapuram in 1965.

A tryst with the thavil wizard Valayapetty Subramaniam proved to be a landmark in the career of Jayasankar. Together they carved out an inimitable idiom in the nagaswaram concert that enamoured a vast constituency of listeners in the whole of south India.

A sound footing in Carnatic vocal music helped Jayasankar infuse emotion and melody in the stylistics of his performance. A large chunk of the kritis of the trinity (Tyagaraja, Dikshitar and Syama Sastri) and Swati Tirunal formed the repertoire of the two maestros wherever they performed.

Jayasankar has played the kirtanas of Purandaradasa, Papanasam Sivan and Annamacharya in his concerts. But he feels that the space for sangatis in the kirtanas is quite restrictive.

Bewitched by the baani of the late Karaikurichi Arunachalam, Jayasankar realigned the relation between the seevali and the lips resulting in mellifluous renditions of the all-time familiar Tyagaraja kritis such as ‘Nagumu’, ‘Sakkaniraja’, ‘Pakkala’ and ‘Sukhiyavvaro rama’. Similarly seminal is the inspiration he drew from Arunachalam in redefining the fingering techniques of the nagaswaram.

While eminent musicians of yore such as Namagiripetta Krishnan and Sheikh Chinnamaulana Saheb invariably retained the melakettu (rhythmic rigour in conformity with the beats of the thavil) in their recitals, Jayasankar reconfigured the compositions in vogue and embroidered it with tonal subtleties and logical progressions.

In this challenging task, the ace instrumentalist received creative support from Valayapetty Subramanyam whose virtuosity and heights of imagination are unprecedented in the history of the thavil.

The celebrities among nagaswaram players passed away one after the other. And Jayasankar has become the lone inheritor of an irretrievable lineage of players. “It is a sad truth that the entire culture of nagaswaram concerts that dominated Andhra Pradesh and Chennai has almost fully disappeared. To rebuild the tradition is no mean task”.

While discussing the contemporary plight of nagaswaram playing, Jayasankar does not conceal his disappointment. Rajarathinam Pillai and Needamangalam Meenakshisundaram Pillai, the legends in nagaswaram and thavil respectively, surface in the reminiscences of Jayasankar. “It was Rajarathinam Pillai who replaced the thimiri (short) Nagaswaram with Baari (long) Nagaswaram. Mellinam (mellowed tones) and vallinam (loud tones) thus became the two amazing means of musical possibilities in the nagaswaram. Those two gurus were god’s chosen artistes before whom I am an absolute non-entity.”

The septuagenarian Jayasankar has been recipient of countless awards and honours in recognition of his expertise and creativity in the field. Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Academy Award and Fellowship, Kalaimamani from the Government of Chennai and the Central Sangeet Natak Academy Award are just a few among them.

Jayasankar has successfully trained several players like Vettikkavala Sasikumar and Harippad Murukadas for the preservation and sustained development of his baani.

Yet he laments the lack of patronage, support and concern from public and private cultural organisations for the continued existence of a hoary heritage. It is high time the grievances of this great musician receive due attention from all those committed to Indian art and culture.

Clarity and depth

Jayasankar’s playing of any raga preceding the kriti is inexplicably alluring. The chittaswaras and kalpanaswaras emanating from his nagaswaram compete with those of a vocalist in terms of clarity and depth. The notes and phrases are suffused with bhava-laden articulations. Even his mallari (combination of cholkettu and swaras) in raga Gambheeranatta is mesmerising.

A devotee who listens to ‘Sree Mahadeva Siva Sambho’ in raga Revathi with its plain yet bewitching notes flowing from Jayasankar’s nagaswaram is easily moved to tears.