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Creating celestial music

MESMERISING: Nadhaswaram vidwans Kalaimamani S. Kasim (left) and his brother S. Babu. Photo: M. Moorthy   | Photo Credit: M_Moorthy

An unusual lull descends upon Thangaiyan Theru in Srirangam in June and July. The residents, accustomed to hearing morning ragas from two of the country's eminent nadhaswaram artistes, wake up to birdsong and blaring horns instead during those two months. That's when the pied pipers of Srirangam, Kasim and Babu, are across the Atlantic sounding divine notes on the king of instruments.

Aristotle spoke of a “single soul dwelling in two bodies”; the duo exemplifies a single tune dwelling in two pipes. Every morning, from their homes directly opposite each other, two individual strains intertwine to seep into the crevices of homes on the banks of the Cauvery.

Kasim and Babu, grandsons of nadhaswaram virtuoso Sheikh Chinna Moulana, have not only kept aglow the light of their forebear's rich legacy, but also managed to carve a niche for themselves.

“We had the coveted opportunity of being entrenched in the tradition simultaneously under a single roof by a vidwan of international acclaim who also happened to be our maternal grandfather,” says Kasim with visible pride.

The brothers hail from Karavadi, a hamlet in Prakasam, Andhra Pradesh, and belong to the Chilakauripeta School of nadhaswaram playing.

They accompanied Sheik Chinna Moulana at concerts for two decades, till he stopped playing in public. The brothers began to play duets till they emerged from their ancestor's shadow to claim an identity of their own.

Lineage and history can occasionally prove a burden, but these artistes see it as a challenge with responsibilities attached. There is constant pressure to maintain the highest standards.

“Thatha was a stalwart who ensured the nadhaswaram had worldwide reception,” says Babu. “We feel that we owe him the responsibility of carrying forward this tradition. The onus is on us to ensure we do not slip in musical standards.”

Beauty, impeccable delivery and consummate craftsmanship have become hallmarks of their music as much as their enviable pedigree.

“People assume it's easy when you descend from a certain tradition. The banner may help you but it exacts hard work to live up to it. But you know what the best part is?” Kasim queries. “Being brothers, we get to share the responsibility, and that makes it all the more easy.”

The pair started playing the nadhaswaram at six, playfully imitating their grandfather, but formal training started when they turned 12. While Babu discovered early on that he was destined for a life of music, Kasim reaffirmed his passion after playing second fiddle to his grandfather at concerts.

The charismatic Kasim is the global face of the duo, taking calls on concerts and performances, while his reticent younger brother bears the responsibility of carrying the torch of tradition to the next generation of aspiring artistes. But their differences melt away into an intense harmony when they pick up their gleaming pipes.

The siblings also share an uncanny ability to read each other's minds. “One of our most successful concerts was in Toronto in 2007,” narrates Babu.

“Our concerts are usually partially planned and we improvise after gauging the pulse of the audience. But we decided to challenge ourselves and left this concert unplanned.”

“It turned out to be a beautifully co-ordinated one,” says the elder brother, “as we carried tunes without so much as a word. We share a mutual understanding and anticipate each other. Co-operation is as important as imagination. When one artiste improvises, the other must follow.”

It might seem surprising that the Muslim brothers are among the foremost exponents of the mangala vadyam or instrument of auspiciousness. “Music is our religion,” says Babu, proud to show us his small pooja room. “We believe in music as a unifying force that bridges religions.”

The twosome represent a tradition that embraces plurality. Little wonder they play often at ceremonies in temples, besides being special nadhaswaram artistes of Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam and asthana vidwans of Sri Sharada Peetham of Shringeri Math and Sri Kanchi Kamakoti Peetham.

Apart from performances in India, the highlights of the year are special concerts in Sri Lanka, Hong Kong, Russia, Germany, France, the U.A.E, Finland, and Malaysia, with a regular tour of the U.S. that includes the Thyagaraja Music Festival in Cleveland. The duo also presents lecture-demonstrations for American and European musicians and musicologists.

“We take concerts for granted here,” explains Babu, “but rasikas there have to wait for the next spring or summer for a concert, so they take our concerts very seriously. Besides, there are very few nadhaswaram artistes there.”

The brothers have met with standing ovations on account of their rich repertoire, particularly when delivering the ‘Dasavatharam ragamalika', which expounds ten avatars in ten ragas.

While the Dr. Chinna Moulana Trust established by the brothers offers relief to indigent artistes and provides free nadhaswarams to aspirants, the

Saradha Nadhaswara Sangeetha Ashram school initiates a new generation of artistes into a 300-year-old pipe-playing tradition. Young artistes receive free musical tutelage from Babu, and free food and accommodation.

Babu rues that nadhaswaram does not command serious young practitioners. “Playing the nadhaswaram requires commitment and hard work over a period of time. There is no instant success here. Breath control comes only with years of practice and even a lifetime will not suffice to master the subtle nuances.”

It takes passion and commitment to create celestial music as these brothers do. For Kasim and Babu, there is no equivalent to piping music to the gods.

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Printable version | Apr 16, 2021 6:43:55 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/metroplus/Creating-celestial-music/article15535389.ece

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