Kuntalam was used as an accompaniment to Poikal Kudirai dance, an art form introduced to Tamil Nadu by artistes from Maharashtra.
Just as he starts playing the instrument, loudspeakers of the nearby mosque call the devout for the evening prayer.
We ask 80-year-old Adamsha, previously known as T.S. Sundara Rao, to wait for the loudspeakers to go silent, but he goes on playing his percussion instrument: he has all but lost his hearing.
Adamsha and his family members have converted to Islam and there is none in the family who is interested in mastering the Kuntalam, now a rare and vanishing instrument.
“Today, the opportunity to play the instrument is few and far between. The income is too meagre to run a family, so I asked our family members to opt for some other profession,” said the Maharashtrian, whose family settled in Tanjavur hundreds of years ago, when the region was ruled by Maratha kings. Kuntalam was the instrument of choice in folk performances, though it was used occasionally in classical performances, especially in nagaswaram concerts.
In the super-hit film Nandanar starring M.M. Dandapani Desikar, there is a scene in which beats of the Kuntalam help an oracle go into a trance. However, the instrument was soon replaced by Nayyandi Melam troupes ubiquitous in Keezha Vasal, Reddipalayam and Vadakku Vasal in Tanjavur.
Though very small, the Kuntalam can produce high-pitched sounds and Sundara Rao demonstrated how it is used on different occasions. “It can also produce sollu normally played on the tavil,” he said. Besides Rao, his nephew Dadabhai, who lives in Keezha Vasal, is probably the only other man still alive who can play the instrument. His nephew Jeeva Rao plays, too, but no one else, says Dadabhai. Kuntalam was used as an accompaniment to Poikal Kudirai dance, an art form introduced to Tamil Nadu by artistes from Maharashtra. Sundara Rao himself was an accomplished Poikal Kudirai artiste, but gave it up long ago although he continues playing the Kuntalam.
The instrument is also played on the occasion of Pal Kudam procession, Shakti Karagam and Kali Aatam. “It's a difficult instrument to learn. You have to fold three of your fingers while playing it and when you are learning to play, your fingers often bleed. Not many youngsters come forward to learn it,” explained 73-year old Dadabhai, who as a boy quit school to follow the family profession. Kuntalam resembles the tabla, but the two pieces — valantalai and toppi — are joined together. The toppi is made of goat skin, and fibre skin is used for valantalai.
A flexible stick from the Aavaram plant, designed in the shape of a question mark, is used for playing the toppi and another small stick for the valantalai.
“Though I have accompanied many tavil players, the instrument has its limitations. It cannot match the tavil when it comes to producing korvais and sollus. Tavil artistes use four fingers and Kuntalam needs only one. But you can use it beautifully while playing for uruppadis and cinema songs,” said Dadabhai. At one point of time the instrument was so famous that the place inhabited by Kuntalam artistes in Vadakku Vasal was known as Kuntalakara Theru (Kuntalakara Street).
Today, there are no practitioners of the art on the street except Sundara Rao. Dadabhai says there are many Kuntalam artistes in Maharashtra, but in Tamil Nadu the sound of the instrument seems to have faded away.