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From France, for a musical journey of a lifetime

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Williams Tallotte
Williams Tallotte

B. Kolappan

Williams Tallotte has studied the nagaswaram tradition

CHENNAI: His is a strange name in the field of nagaswaram music. But Williams Tallotte is no stranger to the nagaswaram music world. The 36-year-old Frenchman has spent two years with nagaswaram and thavil maestros as part of seven years of research that earned him a doctorate from University of Paris IV-Sorbonne in December 2007.

“Voice of the snake percussionist and oboist of the periya melam and the agamic cult of Siva: ethnomusicology of musical practice in the Cauvery Delta (Tamil Nadu)” touches upon every aspect of nagaswaram and thavil music — the tradition, the communities involved and the manufacturers of the instruments.

“I decided to do my research in nagaswaram because it is the last instrument in Carnatic music that still has links with temple traditions and is not limited by the time consciousness of the sabha concerts,” Mr Williams told The Hindu.

“Tradition fading”

“But the tradition is disappearing. The descendents of famous nagaswaram and thavil schools are not ready to carry on the tradition. They feel it is not an honourable profession and prefer other fields. There were so many different schools in nagaswaram, but only a few exist today,” he said. Isai Vellalars in Cauvery Delta, Kambars in southern districts and Maruthuvars in other parts play these instruments.

A student of ethnomusicology, he came to India in 1993 to study violin as part of field work for his masters degree. It was then that he decided to study the nagaswaram and thavil tradition.

He studied nagaswaram under S.R.D. Vaidhyanathan of the Semponnarkoil tradition and later from Injikudi E.M. Subramanian. “But mastering the instrument is no small task. You have to practise at least five hours day,” he added.

What ails nagaswaram music, according to Mr. Williams, besides lack of transmission of knowledge, is the gradual dissociation of the instruments from temple rituals.

Though every temple has its own nagaswaram and thavil player, they were hardly aware of the tradition, he said.

Even the Thiruvaur Thiagaraja and Thiuvenkadu temples no longer followed the nagaswaram traditions unique to them. “Fortunately, the Nataraja temple retains some of the finest traditions in nagaswaram playing.”

He has, in fact, analysed in detail the nagaswaram tradition followed in these three temples, though the main thrust is on Chidambaram temple.

He even lived in Chidambaram for a year to study the tradition.

“Even there, the tradition is followed in bits and pieces. After Vaithyanatha Pillai and Radhakrishna Pillaim, it is Achalpuram Chinnathampi who knows the tradition. But he is ailing and it has been more than 14 years since the rakthi melam was played on the 8th day of the brahmotsavam,” he said.

Mr. Williams feels senior people adept at handling the instruments were not opening up when it came to teaching students. “They may teach you a pallavi but may not pass on the subtlety that will make the pallavi more effective,” he said. Universities and schools also don’t have the desired effect, he added.

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