Nadam and swaram welcome me, as I enter Valeeswaran koil on South Mada Street. E. Kumar, a fourth-generation nadaswaram player from Keezh Sithambur is playing in front of the main sannidhi. He is seated on the floor, in a white kurtha and dhoti; viboothi stripes his forehead, a gold watch circles his wrist. “I learnt to play when I was 14,” he tells me, when he completes the song. “I’ve always loved the nadaswaram. I grew-up hearing my father and grandfather; they woke-up at 4 a.m. everyday and practised for two hours.” When he turned 15, Kumar came to Chennai, and later got his diploma (Vathiya Kalaimani) from Raja Annamalai Mandram College. “Now, I’m 28-years-old, and I’m still learning,” he smiles.

Playing the nadaswaram is a hard-skill, since it requires good breath control, says Kumar, who plays regularly at Valeeswaran temple, besides performing at marriages and functions. And yet, the income is not in line with the current cost of living. “My father and grand-father are also agriculturists, so they have another source of income. In my case, people who visit this temple book me for family functions. But only those who appreciate music pay reasonably. Others think ‘evalo kudutha podum’.”

The nadaswaram, Kumar tells me, is made of ‘aachamaram’ wood and the — sivalli (mouth-piece) is made of ‘korukkuthattu’, a plant. Both are handmade by highly skilled craftsmen at Thiruvaduthurai, near Mayavaram. “I went there with my gurunadhar, P. Varamoorthy, tried several instruments, checked the sruthi (pitch), and played it for a few hours, to get used to it. This one,” he points to his dark brown nadaswaram, “cost me Rs. 4,000 five years ago”. A nadaswaram typically lasts for ten years, and Kumar keeps three spares at home.

Kumar, fond of classical music, lists Hindolam and Revathi ragas as his personal favourites, but for concerts, he chooses songs depending on the occasion and the audience. ‘Kurai Ondrum Illai’, ‘Sambo Shiva Sambo’, and ‘Kaatrinilley Varum Geetham’ are very popular. “There’s an old man who comes here, who always asks me to play ‘Alaipayudhey’,” he smiles, adding that a thavil player usually accompanies him (he’s not around that day). Married, his wife is a homemaker, with a two-year-old son, Kumar cycles to the temple from Mandaveli, where he lives. “You know, my son already picks up the nadaswaram and tries to play the instrument,” smiles Kumar. And yet, he’s reluctant to choose his son’s career for him. “He can opt for higher-studies, if he wishes. If he wants to learn nadaswaram, I will gladly teach him when he’s 10. But the reason a lot of people are no longer pursuing this as a career is because it does not pay well.”

As we speak, bells clang in the temple and a man breaks into a song. When the nadaswaram and the thavil play together, it creates a concert-like atmosphere in the temple, Kumar tells me. “Lots of people sit down and listen to it.” Temples have, in the past, always been cultural hubs. And for a few hours everyday, Valeeswaran koil too becomes one…

The reason a lot of people are no longer pursuing this as a career is because it does not pay well

(A weekly column on men and women who make Chennai what it is)