A peek into Chennai’s Iyal Isai Museum

A veena shaped like a tortoise, harp played in Burmese courts and melancholic-sounding yazhs... it’s a throwback to ancient times at the Government Museum

One has only heard of pulluvan veena, a rare folk instrument played by the pulluvar community in Northern Kerala, through films. Today, you can see it on a glass-shelved gallery, a throwback to another time. The wooden instrument sits in a corner, waiting to be noticed just like its better known counterparts, the violin and mridangam, also on display.

This once little-known room full of quaint musical contraptions (including originals and models), many dating back to ancient times, was opened to the public last month. Located in the anthropological gallery at the Government Museum, Egmore, the Iyal Isai Museum houses around 38 musical instruments — percussion, wind and string — from across the country, and eight dance sculptures.

There are string instruments, shaped like a fish, peacock and tortoise. Afghan instruments such as the rubab, the Burmese saung, jaltarang, sarang, sitar, parai, thappu, dholak, damaru, nagara — they are varied, born in different lands, used by different tribes, and tell diverse stories.

Nivedita Louis, a history lover, freelance journalist and guide to this display explains the cultural discourse created by these instruments. She talks of how tuntuna, an instrument used by ascetics and beggars, evolved into a word in popular Tamil to ridicule a person without money. “It was a tamasha art, ethnic to Western India, used by Islamic Sufi saints as well as Hindu ascetics for devi worship,” says Louis.

This used to be a dusty, almost-forgotten corner of the museum. But, it has been rediscovered thanks to an initiative by Kavitha Ramu, IAS officer and Director of Museums, Tamil Nadu.

Louis had to add descriptive labels to the instruments and look for sculptural and literary references, because the museum could not provide all the information required. “I had to read works of Tamil musical scholars, such as Mammathu and Sakthi Tamil. We also put together a video, of each instrument being played for 25 to 30 seconds, and screened it at the entrance of the gallery to add to the visual appeal and hearing experience.”

Apart from this, some like the panchamugavadyam, a five-faced percussion instrument, made of brass, and used in the Thiruvaroor Temple, are kept in the open for people to touch and feel. “Some of the visitors, especially those who were visually challenged like Jyoti Kalai, a teacher from the Music College, Chennai found it extremely interesting,” says Louis.

There was an imbalance in the way people responded to different instruments, notes Louis. While many knew about the so called ‘high art’ instruments such as mridangam and violin, nobody knew about a kinnari, pulluvan veenai or tribal shehnai. “They were astounded to learn about the veenai, because they never knew about the pulluvar community. However, I gathered new information from some people — like a student of a parai school who told me there were 10 types of parai beats. And, an elderly woman who clarified for me that gottuvadhyam and vichitraveena are two different instruments, contrary to my assumption.”

While tomes were written on temple instruments, that wasn’t the case with the tribal and folk ones. “I had to hunt for sculptural references for bhuri, an Indian equivalent of the Western trumpet. After a long search, it was a friend in Hosur who identified it and told me that the Dasari community in Krishnagiri and Dharmapuri districts practised it. Similarly, the pulluvan veena was initially named by the museum as veena kunju. I had to spend hours on YouTube to unearth one clip and that led me to a universe of their art form and culture — the pullavathi kudam (drum used by the female player), sarppa thullal (snake dance in Kerala) done on the sarppa kalam (the arena where the dance happens).”

Louis notes that while ‘high art’ instruments are removed from everyday life, their folk counterparts were intertwined with the daily life of the common man.

“A parai is played during the death of a loved one. They play it when they are happy or sad. They reflect reality better. Instead, we look down upon them. The new generation should take the initiative to learn about these instruments, and the practitioners be more forthcoming in imparting the skill. Today, tribals are forced out of their livelihoods. How often can you find a person playing a mahout instrument these days?”

(The exhibition is on till February 28 at the Government Museum, Egmore. For details, call 28193778. Louis is planning to do a walk around historically significant buildings on RK Salai. Details of similar history walks will be updated on the Facebook page of Madras Local History group.)

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Printable version | Apr 9, 2020 2:06:24 AM |

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