The sound of celebration

T.A. Kaliamurti. Photo: The Hindu Archives   | Photo Credit: N_SRIDHARAN

There is a memorable scene in the 1968 cult classic Tillana Mohanambal, where the protagonist Shanmugasundaram and his nagaswaram-thavil ensemble are challenged to upstage a jazz band, and the melam ‘set’ goes on to do exactly that, reaffirming the nagaswaram’s stature as rajavadyam or ‘king of instruments’ in Karnataka sangeetham.

“Other instruments hold sway on the concert platform. But the nagaswaram is the one chosen to serenade the gods,” points out Sheik Mahaboob Subhani, an eighth generation nagaswara vidwan. “Periya melam is an integral part of temple rituals, especially during utsavam and purappadu. Likewise, no auspicious event, particularly a wedding, is complete without melam. Thus, mangala isai is inseparably woven into our socio-cultural fabric”.

Subhani’s wife Kaleeshabi, his on-stage partner for over 30 years since their marriage, shares her experiences as a female artist in a male-dominated domain. “Though I began performing before marriage, I could not have continued without the support and encouragement of my husband and in-laws. It is an ultra-demanding discipline. Even on non-concert days, we practise for at least four hours.”

What are the obvious changes in the art over the years? “Melam figures in three main types of performance — temple procession expositions, kutcheris at temples and those at sabhas,” explains Kasim of the famous Kasim-Babu nagaswaram duo. “Traditionally, festive processions such as purappadu with veedhi valam would begin around 9 p.m. and end at 5 a.m. This was conducive to a detailed development of rakthi ragas such as Thodi or Kalyani.

“Maestros including T.N. Rajaratnam Pillai, Karukurichi Arunachalam and Sheik Chinna Moulana (my grandfather) would present a single raga for five-six hours with pallavi and ragamalika swaraprasthara. This was truly a varaprasadam for raga alapana, which gave enormous scope for long karvais and multi-hued prayogas using techniques involving the tongue, lips, blowing pressure and fingering such as viraladi sangathis. It strengthened the voice-nadaswaram synergy, with vocalists drawing from the nagaswaram’s vocabulary and nagaswaram artists drawing from the vocalists’ patantharam of compositions. Both thrived. But today, programme durations have shrunk to just two hours for purappadu and a little more for concerts. And the concept of raga alapana is the biggest casualty. The vistara and expansive vision of six hours are now pruned to half-hour sketches, with the rest of the kutcheri accommodating varnam, kritis, swaraprasthara and tukkadas for the standard format.”

And are youngsters coming into the art? “With about 20 district-level government music schools and five music colleges, Devaswam institutions and accredited universities, there is no dearth of teaching centres,” explains Injikudi Subramaniam, a nagaswaram vidwan of the younger generation. “Unfortunately, there is a tendency to admit to these schools children who don’t score well in conventional schools.”

This means many students join not to learn the art but because it could offer an income. Once they get a certificate and bag local performing engagements at temples or weddings where mangala isai is de rigueur, they are not interested in taking their craft to the next level.

“To evolve from that stage into high-calibre artist is a quantum leap that demands endless commitment. At least 10 hours of focused daily sadhakam, which can only happen under a guru’s watchful eye, is needed,” says Injikudi.

“Gurukula vasam is of utmost importance,” agrees leading thavil vidwan T.G. Muthukumaraswami. “My father, a great thavil vidwan, was against my entering the profession and shooed me off to school. But the call of the thavil was irresistible. I would keep drumming sollus in class, oblivious to lessons. Reluctantly, he agreed to let me follow my destiny. It was vidwan T.A. Kaliamurti who honed my talent and taught me all that I know today. Not just the art, but life lessons, learnt through constant association and observation.”

Why aren’t more melam kutcheris featured during the Margazhi Season? Says senior thavil vidwan Thanjavur R. Govindarajan, “When luminaries such as Semmangudi and GNB have openly acknowledged their debt to nagaswara isai, it is puzzling why a more equal representation is not given to melam kutcheris during the Season. Why has it been phased out to the point where it is necessary to hold a separate festival? Why can’t it be included as part of the main Season kutcheri schedule? These are questions for sabha organisers to answer.”

He adds, “However, the sidelining by sabhas has in no way affected the flourishing state of this art. In music institutions, melam students constitute the maximum strength. Thavil artists earn a good living with steady concert engagements throughout the year. New entrants must not lose heart during the initial years of struggle. I can personally testify to the fact that hard work will bear fruit.”

Today, melam has to compete with diverse musical forms to capture and retain a wider base of listeners.

The art was frequently in the spotlight up until the early 1990s, followed by a downswing when only a brief mangala isai segment would surface at sabha inaugurals. Post 2007, there was a revival of sorts. Much of the credit goes to veteran thavil vidwans and joint organisers Tiruvalaputhur A. Kaliamurti and Tiruppungur G. Muthukumaraswami, who rolled out the first edition of a week-long fest featuring only melam kutcheris. Since then, it has grown into an annual event.

Says Kaliamurthi, “It has paved the way for greater recognition and respect for the art and artists. We invite rasikas to attend in large numbers. Their heartfelt appreciation is all we want.”

The Nadhaswara Thavilisai Festival 2016 is on till Jan 26 at Brahma Gana Sabha, Dakshinamurthy auditorium, Mylapore.

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Printable version | Jul 23, 2021 8:22:39 AM |

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