To the sound of Nagara

The percussion instrument is played at temple processions

Published - April 04, 2019 03:45 pm IST

We were at the Kanchipuram Kamakshi temple for the Brahmotsavam. The goddess, in Mohini alankaram, was taken around the streets in a golden palanquin, to the accompaniment of rhythmic beats from a huge drum, known as nagara or kettel drum.

These drums, also called Timpani, are used in different musical cultures. Saul Goodman in his Modern Method for Timpani , mentions the first recorded use of early Tympanum by the Hebrews during religious ceremonies.

Seaman Christopher and Richards Michael in Inside Conducting mention that in 1457 a Hungarian legation sent by King Ladislaus V carried large Timpani mounted on a horseback to the court of King Charles VII in France. And in the Mughal Empire, kettle drums were placed on the camel back and played. There are also references about its use, along with trumpets, as ceremonial instruments in the cavalry during the 15th century. By the end of the 18th century, Timpani , from being just a military drum became a part of classical orchestra.

In India, different types of kettle drums are used, of which nagara is used in temple rituals, folk festivals and weddings. It belongs to the category of the Avanaddha Vadyas/membranophone/percussion instruments. They are further classified under the sub-category of single-faced drums.

About 1-2 ft in diameter, it is played with two curved sticks. It is usually made of copper, brass or sheet iron and a hide is stretched over the bowl-shaped hollow body, covering the hoops of metal. These are then stretched by ropes or leather thongs.

C.R. Day in his book, The Music and Musical Instruments of Southern India and the Deccan , mentions that Nagara, sometimes referred to as Bheri or Nakkera, are played at temple processions.

The instrument is usually placed on a two-wheeled carriage or a bullock cart that follows the procession of the deity. The drum is played by the person sitting in the carriage.

Day also mentions that in the Ramayana, Mahabharata and the Puranas, this instrument is called Dundhubi. The bigger varieties of this instrument, according to Day, were used in battles. The catalogue of the Government Museum, Chennai, mentions that the battle drum was played to announce the victory or defeat of a ruler.

Nagara plays a significant role in temples across South India. In Kumarakottam, this instrument used to be played during the Kandha Sashti festival, though not anymore.

During the 12-day Brahmotsavam at the Varadarajar temple, Kanchipuram, it is played before the deity is taken out in a procession. This drum is also played during pavitrotsavam, when Nagara performers sit and play in the mandapam on all seven days of the utsavam.

At the Kanchi Kamakoti math, Nagara is played during neivedyam and deeparadanai . The instrument accompanies the Mutt Heads during their yatra to various places. Once performed regularly at the temples in Kanchipuram — mainly Sri Kamakshi Amman, Ekambareswarar, Kumarakottam, Sonna Vannam Seidha Perumal and Vilakodi Divya Prakasar — the instrument is not being used much now. In temples such as Kachapeswarar and Ulagalandha Perumal it is preserved for reference.

At Atcheeswarar temple, Achirapakkam, Nagara was performed during the veedhi ula . A.N. Dakshinamurthy, who plays the nagaswaram at the temple says that Nagara was played by mounting it on a cow. It was played during utsavams at the Jnanapureeswarar temple in Tiruvadisoolam.

At the Nellaiappar temple in Tirunelveli, Nagara is still played during temple rituals. Yegnanarayan, former EO of the temple, says that Nagara was played in the Nagara mandapam mainly to announce the opening of the temple and before the mudal kalam puja. Now it is played in the amman sannadhi during the Tiruvanandal/Tirupalliezhuchi. Similar kettle drums of larger size, usually about five ft in diameter, known as Maha Nagara or Nakabet were used in bands in the palaces of Mahomedan nobles in South India.

A variety of this drum called Dhumsa is used in Chhau, a martial, tribal and folk dance form.

Day mentions that a semi-spherical form of Nagara called Karadisamda is used in Lingayat temples. A smaller kettle drum known as Tom Tom is found in almost every street throughout India.

The writers are well-known Carnatic violinists

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