The evolution of music in Tamil Nadu makes for an interesting study. Music, derived from the popular sound and dialect of regions, had given rise to an array of Tamil music since the Sangam era.
“Each ethnic community displayed its uniqueness while interpreting, practising and passing on the art of music. The more diverse the communities, the greater the categorisation of ethnic music,” says Suvarnalatha Rao, Indian music and research scientist and programme head at the National Centre for the Performing Arts, Mumbai. Silappathikaram, the Tamil epic, has one of the earliest mentions of Tamil Isai. Emerging from the intertwining practices of Iyal (music) and Natya (dance-drama), the language took form, gained its grammatical structure and was finally used to reimagine music as an aid to drama rather than a means of practising other performative arts.
“Once the music and drama order was established by the Pandyas, who were patrons of traditional art, 103 ragas were introduced and music was given the name Pann Isai,” explains Nizhal P. Thirunavukarasu, music historian and author. Pann, meaning colour or flavour, denotes a raga and the unique mood it sets. With these 103 ragas, it is said 1,003 songs were composed by bards and poets in the Sangam era. Only 22 of them survive.
Ethnic instruments at play
Sangam, meaning confluence, represented the coming together of music and dance or drama; vocal and instrumental music; and conventional and progressive practices. While string instruments continued to evolve, the focus gradually shifted to percussion instruments such as the Mann Parai (a drum made of clay), which continues to be used today by the tribes. “The drum, made of mud, is the inspiration behind the Mirdangam [mrit meaning mud and angam meaning limb in Sanskrit], which is popularly used as accompaniment for music performances today,” says Mr. Thirunavukarasu, who has studied the evolution of instruments in Tamil Nadu. Much before the nadaswaram and the flute came into the picture, musicians had transitioned to wind instruments with the tumbu. Bamboo plants that grew with holes in them produced melodic sounds when blown into, in a technique similar to that used on a flute. This instrument is being kept alive by the tribes in Krishnagiri and Dharmapuri, who play it on auspicious occasions and at temple festivals.
Later, musicians began using the nadaswaram extensively and it soon found its place as a prominent instrument in Tamil culture and Periya Melam music, which can be traced to the South Indian classical music.
During the 13th Century, Periya Melam musicians offered musical services to Hindu temples. This tradition is closely related to Carnatic music, and includes the nadaswaram, a percussion instrument known as Thavil, a rhythmic pattern called Thalam and an instrument to set the scale for the music, says cultural anthropologist Pathmanesan Sanmugeswaran in his conference paper Exploring the Elements of Ethnomusicology in Periya Mēlam Music in Tamil Culture.
Hub of Carnatic music
Dr. Rama Kausalya, former principal of Thiruvaiyaru Music College, says, “We believe temple music need not always be classical and structured. For instance, Thanjavur, the hub of Carnatic music, is also known for its unique folk music sung by farmers and musicians during temple processions, even before the concert format was adapted. In fact, many communities of musicians consider Bhajan songs to be folk and not classical.” Folk art, such as Kummi and Kolattam paattu, continues to hold a prominent place among the surviving communities of folk musicians and are often sung in tandem with folk dance. “Kummi music and dance, mostly performed by women during the harvest season and the subsequent festival of Pongal, weddings, and temple festivals, are based on rhythm that is created by a series of claps that act as the thalam or metric used to achieve musical synchrony, while conveying a message by clapping or pausing at the right time,” Dr. Kausalya explains.
The shift to ‘Carnatic’
Post-Sangam period, music in the region began to be known as ‘Carnatic’. The musical trinity of Saints Thyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Shyama Shastri initiated Telugu compositions into Tamil Nadu, giving way to the influence of the Carnatic region (the present-day Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh) into Pann Isai. This led not only to a decline in the number of Tamil compositions but also to the restructuring of musical performance. Attention drifted from folk music, and classical music found a place outside of royal courts too. “Classical music was now made accessible to the common audience, especially women, as Devaradiyars or Devadasis — women who dedicated their lives to the service of god in temples — took up the art and began performing both Isai and Natya. This helped break the Brahminical barriers prevalent in the Carnatic music of those days,” says Mr. Thirunavukarasu.
The revival of Tamil Isai
The 1940s saw the revival of Tamil Isai, spearheaded by Raja Sir Annamalai Chettiar, who had also established Annamalai University. This movement challenged the claim that Tamil was unfit for Carnatic music and that the Pallavi, Anupallavi and Charanam structure was the holy grail for compositions. “Tamil never left the stage. It may have taken a backseat, but with the Tamil Isai movement, it was again brought to centre stage,” says M. A. Bhageerathi, former Controller and Registrar in charge of Tamil Nadu Dr. J. Jayalalithaa Music and Fine Arts University. “The movement not only broke language and structural barriers but also allowed ethnic music like koothu to flourish and artistes to regain creative freedom, without which music cannot thrive.”