Part of a rich Carnatic tradition, today the instrument has negligible presence at Sabhas.
The December Music Season comprises 60 organisations hosting over 2000 music and dance performances, according to unverified sources. Going by the figures bandied about, these sources are probably unreliable as well. But what is certain is that a large number of organisations host a vast number of recitals in both fields, making for -what is widely believed to be- the largest privately organised cultural festival in the whole world.
What is also equally evident is that the nagaswaram has a negligible presence in the whole jamboree. It is absent in most Sabhas and wherever present it is just a precursor to the inaugural event, going under the euphemism of Mangala Isai.
A handful of Sabhas present nagaswaram concerts. Even there, these are allotted morning slots that not many people attend. The prevalent opinion is that nagaswaram recitals do not attract audiences. It is a vicious cycle. Since nagaswaram peformances are not crowd-pullers, they are not given prime slots and so attendance is poor.
No wonder nagaswaram artists are unenthusiastic about the December season. Performing Mangala Isai for around 45 minutes to a near empty hall, while everyone is focused on the Chief Guest who is yet to arrive, is hardly an artist’s idea of a dream concert. Why not just make do with recorded music? If this is the case with senior nagaswaram artists, that of aspirants is even worse. No Sabha other than the Tamil Isai Sangam has afternoon slots for the nagaswaram. No other instrument goes unrepresented like this. How else will the up-and-coming artists get the opportunity and exposure to play for a discerning audience? How does a Sabha decide which young nagaswaram artist can move up the ladder and eventually merit an evening slot? But when there are no such evening slots for the nagaswaram other than the Mangala Isai, it really does not matter does it?
Strangely enough, Carnatic music is an art, which even now readily acknowledges that raga music has evolved largely owing to the nagaswaram. Both Semmangudi and GNB, though they came from diametrically opposite styles when it came to performing alapanas, openly spoke of the inspiration they obtained from the detailed raga elaborations of nagaswaram artists such as TN Rajarathinam Pillai. With such a hoary past, why has the nagaswaram come to such a sorry pass?
Unfortunately, nagaswaram artists have over the years adopted the concert format like everyone else. This therefore has robbed them of their forte – presenting items such as Mallari and focusing on raga alapanas. The artists need to develop the skill of presenting ragas at length. A discussion between Sabhas and artists will help to work out the best presentation format. That is, if they are serious about preserving this unique Carnatic tradition.
There are Sabhas today that have exclusive nagaswaram festivals such as Sri Krishna Gana Sabha.While it turns the focus on a threatened art, it may be a case of gilding the lily. How much nagaswaram music can one listen to in succession?
It will be better to spread nagaswaram performances evenly throughout the season and in all slots – morning, junior, sub-senior and senior.
Today’s scenario is different when compared to 80-odd years ago. At that time, organisations such as the Music Academy and the Mylai Sangeetha Sabha did not include nagaswaram performances in their bill-of-fare, because it was perceived as an outdoor instrument. (It certainly is, but with sensitive amplification, wonders can be done indoors.) It was left to AK Ramachandra Iyer to take up cudgels on behalf of the pipers. He founded the RR Sabha to showcase the instrument. Such was its popularity that other Sabhas followed suit.
The Academy took the initiative by asking TN Rajarathinam Pillai to perform. The first such concert was at the Academy’s venue at General Patters Road. The crowd was so thick that vehicles could not pass through. A rickshaw gave up the attempt midway and its passenger, a blind old woman, was asked to alight. She then felt her way through the crowd and made it to the venue. Once there, everyone recognised her and helped her to sit near the dais. As the performance ended, she clambered on to stage and enveloped TNR in an embrace. The curtains came down on the two legends holding on to each other, for the old woman was none other than Veena Dhanam. Can such magic return?