History & Culture

For a lighter thavil

An artist playing the thavil  

The making of no other instrument has evolved as much as the thavil, the only percussion instrument without sruti. Every part of the instrument, barring the drum made of jackfruit wood, has changed with time and more importantly, according to the need of Porayar Venugopala Pillai, a nonagenarian, still playing and teaching the instrument.

He adopted the technique used for making western percussion instruments, and in the process, made it easy for thavil players, who used to spend hours tightening the instrument with leather belts. Valayapatti A.R. Subramaniam, the only thavil player to receive the Sangita Kalanidhi , however, feels that 50 per cent of the original sound of the instrument has changed.

“But I overcome it by not fully tightening the thattu (leather plate). Still I have succeeded in bringing back only 90 per cent of the original sound,” says Subramaniam.

Today, different parts of the thavil, are made in various places and later assembled. The jackfruit drum comes from Panruti in Cuddalore, synonymous with jackfruit groves. The steel rings (valai) made of iron pipes, for attaching the leather is made at Thiruvaiyaru Valangaiman and Kattumannarkoil, the birth place of Vaishnava Acharya Nadhamunigal. Earlier, layers of bamboo were used to make the rings.

Steel belts for fixing the valanthalai (rightside) and thoppi (left side) on the drum and the connecting rod in the middle of the drum are manufactured at Mayiladuthurai.

Before Venugopala Pillai made the changes, leather belts were used to tighten the valanthalai and thoppi without which the performance of a thavil player would go haywire. It takes a minimum of one hour to tighten the instrument.

Traditionally thavil players used the stick of thirvachi plant, known for its medicinal benefits, for playing the thoppi. Rice paste and cotton cloth were used to make the ‘koodu’ worn in the fingers for playing on the right side. Now water-sealing compound has replaced rice paste. But it was his physical discomfort that forced Pillai to bring about the change. “I was part of the nagaswaram troupe of Chidambaram Radhakrishna Pillai and developed high fever. I was shivering on the day I was performing with him, on the occasion of Aani Manjanam festival, at Chidambaram temple. As it is against sampradaya to remove the instrument till the concert is over, I played till I fainted,” recalls Pillai.

He had hernia and doctors advised him not to strain too much. “I thought it was end of the road for my career as I was unable to tighten the thavil.” He spent days without playing the instrument till he happened to watch a western band playing in Mayiladuthurai, where he had gone to watch Sakunthala, starring M.S. and GNB.

“The drummer played extremely well and when I went near him I noticed the nuts and bolts attached to the drum. I decided to adapt the technology for the thavil,” explains Pillai.

He began his experiment by using thin metal belts used to pack textiles in wooden boxes. But the tensile strength was not adequate and the belts snapped when tightened beyond a point. He increased the thickness of the belts.

“But I could produce the pleasing sound of thavil only on the thoppi and not on the right side. I constantly changed the place of the ring in the middle of the wooden drum where the belts will be attached. I could achieve the magic when I fixed it near the thoppi.”

When asked whether he is happy with this achievement, Pillai says that he has reduced the weight of the thavil, but is unhappy that the original sound is lost.


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Printable version | Jun 16, 2021 4:10:51 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/thavil-artist-venugopala-pillai-improved-the-instrument-with-his-innovations/article8050101.ece

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