SOUND engineers of Tamil Nadu Tamil Nadu

Behind the sound of music that wafts through air in Thanjavur’s Narasingapettai

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In the nondescript village of Tamil Nadu, nadaswaram makers mix tradition and innovation to create the double-reed wind instrument.

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Craftsmanship, tradition and a lot of quirky innovation — together they create the sound of music. Behind the talented musicians who will take the stage for the next few weeks are dedicated craftspeople who silently and anonymously fashion instruments, using wood and earth, and also much thrift and creativity.

In Narasingapettai, a nondescript village in Tamil Nadu’s Thanjavur district, nadaswaram makers mix tradition and innovation to create the double-reed wind instrument. Wood from the Anjan tree (Hardwickia binata) makes the stem of the nadaswaram. The lower, flared part of the instrument, once made of rosewood, is now made from the cheaper wood of the lebbeck tree (Albizia lebbeck).

“The Anjan tree is naturally water-resistant; so when a nadaswaram artist plays the instrument the wood never gets damp. There is no substitute for Anjan,” a nadaswaram maker explains. Sometimes, the wood gouged out of demolished houses is used because old, weathered wood holds a tune better.

Panruti, a town in coastal Cuddalore famous for its succulent jackfruit, is a mridangam-making hub. The craftsmen here believe that timber from old jackfruit trees adds a unique timbre to the mridangam.

Ghatam is a Carnatic percussion instrument made of clay and sand. A ghatam maker recalls how clay from 15 villages around Manamadurai was once in high demand because of the vibratory, metallic quality it lent to the sound, an integral aspect of ghatam-playing. With such high-quality clay not available any more, the craftsmen now use an innovation — a mix of graphite powder and iron oxide — to create that effect.

In Thanjavur, veenas were once made with elephant tusks and deer antlers. Keeping in mind conservation and cost, the ornamental portion of the veena is now crafted with plastic or wood.

(Text and images by R. Ravindran)

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