Friday Review

What adds melody to the reed?

A Narasingapettai nagaswaram being made Photo: The Hindu Archives  

Rama was left with only one option when Sugriva doubted whether he could vanquish Vaali, who was blessed with the boon of absorbing half the strength of his enemies. Rama delivered an arrow, piercing through seven acha marams (Hardwickia binata), a hardwood tree, which convinced Sugriva about his prowess. Probably this incident in Ramayana would have also convinced the nagaswaram makers to select acha maram.

“We still use acha maram for making ulavu the pipe and vaagai (mimosa) wood for anusu, the sound enlarger fitted at the end. In the past anusu was made of rose wood and due to its rising cost we switched over to vaagai,” said S. Gunasekaran, a nagaswaram maker from Narasingapettai, near Mayiladuthurai.

The instrument has twelve holes – seven on the side; two each on either side and one at the end. The upper hole on the right side is closed with wax to produce perfect suddha madhymam.

Even though plenty of acha trees are available, nagaswaram makers in Narasingapettai and Therazhundhur normally buy old pillars made of acha maram from dismantled houses. “The wood should be completely dry to ensure that it does not absorb moisture and these age old pillars suit our requirement. That is not the case with the ordinary wood which absorbs the moisture eventually altering the output of the instrument,” explained Gunasekaran.

Today, nagaswaram players use 36-inch pari type nagaswaram, designed by nagaswaram wizard Thiruvavaduthurai Rajarathinam Pillai with the help of late Ranganathan Achari, the uncle of Gunasekaran.

“Rajarathinam Pillai felt that the small thimiri-type nagaswaram was not suitable for playing suddha madhyamam clearly. Moreover, thimiri, demanding enormous lung power also wrecked havoc on the health of nagaswaram players as they used to play for long hours,” pointed out nagaswaram player Injikudi E.M. Subramaniam.

Thimiri was in vogue when sound systems had not entered the music world. With the accompaniment of thavil, the sharp and high-pitched thimiri with its sruti of three would announce people about the temple procession.

As music moved to sabhas from the precincts of temple and the courts of Kings, Rajarathinam Pillai’s pari type nagaswaram fulfilled the requirement. “With its sruti ranging between two or two and a half, the pari is perfectly suited for chamber concert,” said Subramaniam.

Depending on the size of the nagaswaram, the seevali (reed) used for blowing the instrument is also changed to suit a particular sruti.

Gunasekaran said nagaswaram players across South India place orders. “The demand is only for pari. Only a few people place orders for thimiri. An instrument may be finished in two days if three people work on it,” It will cost Rs. 5,000,” he said.

Mechanisation also has reduced the burden of nagaswaram makers. A different type of nagaswaram is played at the Thiruvaur Thyagaraja Swamy temple. It is known as Thiruvarur pari and the anusu of the instrument is made of brass instead of wood. “Other nagaswarams are not allowed in the temple. Playing methods are also different here. The nagaswaram is aligned to mangu sruti (old style of playing madhyamam instead of shadjamam and the fingering style is akin to shenai playing) while other nagaswarams are aligned to pongu sruti,” explained Subramaniam.


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Printable version | Jul 22, 2021 7:47:50 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/what-adds-melody-to-the-reed/article8025711.ece

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