The unsung makers of music

KEEPING TRADITION ALIVE: S. Gunasekaran (left) at his workshop. Photo: Soma Basu  

About 20 kms from Kumbakonam, the Carpenter Street in Narasingapettai is a quiet bylane of row houses on a Sunday afternoon. The only sound that emanates is from the buffer verandah space of S.Gunasekaran’s house. With two other workers he is busy trying to shape a block of wood.

“After minimum three days of cutting, shaping, filing, rolling, drilling,” Gunasekaran tells me, “this same log of wood that you now see passing through our hands will sing.”

Yes, with a cutting edge precision, a handcrafted nadaswaram will be born. It will sell for Rs.5,000 to 10,000 depending on the size and these skilled workers will barely earn a profit of Rs.500 to Rs.1,000 after excluding the cost of wood, labour, instrument repair and other accessories.

Yet, as I watch them I only see passion at work not just the person using his skills to make it. Also watching them is Gunasekaran’s father, G.P.Sundarajan, who at 81 years, the family claims, is the oldest nadaswaram maker in the country today.

His fingers tremble and his hands are not so steady any more but his ears are perfectly tuned to the melodious strains of the nadaswaram. “The moment we place the wood on the lathe and start cutting and filing,” points out Gunasekaran, “my father will tell us how sweet the swaras will sound!” The old man occupies a corner in the verandah and his eyes never shift from the workstation of his son and the two helpers till the final product comes out.

It obviously takes an exceptional talent to make this complex wind instrument, also called the mangalam vadyam (auspicious instrument), that are played across temples in the South, during festivals and at Tamil weddings. But shockingly there are exactly four families left in the village who are trying to keep the craft alive for the future generations. The handful of craftspersons are so simple and dedicated to their work, that they do not even know – or perhaps care about – how to market themselves and their product.

That is why they even end up giving discounts to musicians who earn in lakhs playing at concerts and functions in big cities and come to them to change the nadaswaram only once in three to five years depending on the usage.

In a month, we make and sell hardly three to five nadaswarams either directly to the player or in the retail market. Gunasekaran also rues about the government’s indifference. “All awards and honour go to the musicians who play the nadaswaram but nobody remembers us. We toil to make them and live on meagre earnings,” he says.

In the adjacent house, 53-year-old N.G.N.R.Selvaraj is also busy chiselling out nadaswarams. He says he is a fourth generation nadaswaram maker and has been at this work ever since he turned 15. His great grandfather, Govindaswamy Achari learnt the craft of making nadaswaram in nearby village Mayavaram and brought it to their native, Narasingapettai. Selvaraj’s father N.G.N.Renganathan Achari after some experimentation with the earlier version of the handcrafted instrument called the thimiri that required lot of lung power to play it, modified it into paari nadaswaram, the long one having all the seven notes. The first piece was made in 1955 for T.N.Rajarathinam Pillai. This model is used by most musicians now.

Says Selvaraj, “all the big time musicians of those days, the Kalaimani awardees and cinema artists came to my father for buying their instrument.” The ones made by his family have also travelled to London, Malaysia, Singapore, Switzerland, Canada, Germany and Sri Lanka. For learning and practice, many people earlier used to buy the small primary model.

But now, says Selvaraj, learners are also few. “The only bulk orders that we get occasionally now are from the film industry for cinema recordings.”

None of Gunasekaran or Selvaraj’s sons have taken to this traditional art.

The new generation has strayed into other fields because they realise with the earnings from making musical instruments, they cannot run their homes. Yet, their fathers are so passionate about what they do. They want to share their skills and keep their profession going. But unfortunately there are no takers.

The same is the story of thavil, veena and mrudangam veena makers, all in the vicinity. All that these crafts persons seek is some recognition from the government and patronage by music lovers and people in general.


The nadaswaram is an ancient 13th century complex musical instrument. Traditionally nadaswarams are made with achcha maram (Indian blackwood or the ebony tree) that is at least 75 to 100 years old. Young wood can’t be used as it bends. The craftspersons get the wood salvaged from the pillars and beams of old demolished houses in Cuddalore, Karaikal, Puducherry, Villupuram, Tindivanam, Thiruvannamalai and Aarani.

Each nadaswaram weighs around 500 gm to one kg and measures from two to 4.5 feet. The main stem or the long narrow pipe is called the othu (without the holes) and is made from the wood of the ebony tree. When the holes for the seven swaras are drilled into it, it is called ulavu and is fitted into the flared lower portion or anusu made from the wood of sirish or vaagai (rain tree) that amplifies the sound. The mouth piece or seevazhi is made of a reed found near Narasingapettai.

Some well known exponents of Nadaswaram include: Seshampatti Sivalingam, Namagiripettai Krishnan, T N Rajarathinam Pillai, Sheikh Chinna Maulana, M.P.N.Ponnuswamy, Madurai Sethuraman, Thiruvengadu Balasubramaniam, Vedaranyam Vedamurthy, Nadaswara Chakravarthi

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Printable version | Jul 28, 2021 11:11:04 AM |

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