I hurried through the Livermore temple parking lot to join the grand wedding celebration of Srinivasa Perumal with Andaal, his celebrated devotee. As I neared the temple entrance, I was drawn to the captivating and majestic melody of the nadaswaram ensemble, which raised the authenticity of the celebration to a higher dimension. The music immediately lifted me to a distant time and place. I was transported back to my childhood, back to the narrow streets of my hometown behind the historic temple of Adi Kesava Perumal in Mylapore, Chennai.
That is where my musical journey started—listening to the majestic melodies of the nadaswaram accompanied by the thavil (drums). From the early morning Thiruppalli Ezhuchi (wakeup call for the Lord) to the Sayana Sevai (lullaby), the Adi Kesava Perumal temple was always abuzz with activities. Every celebration was accompanied by the asthana vidvan (resident artist) showering the Lord with evocative melodies. During all grand processions around the temple and through the adjacent streets, the delightful nadaswaram ensemble would lead, enchanting audiences and worshippers with beautiful ragas.
The nadaswaram (also called the nagaswaram) is one of the most ancient instruments of India. Thiruvaiyaar, the womb of Karnatik music, is the land reputed to have nurtured this art form and its many artists. The nadaswaram is a double reed woodwind, the body of which is traditionally made from the accha trees in a small village called Narasingapuram by generations of skilled craftsman. The reeds themselves are made from the leaves of a locally grown plant called naanal (a variety of the bamboo family). The instrument has a cylindrical body that flares into a bell shape at the bottom, and it is this form that provides the nadaswaram with its characteristic volume and captivating tone.
The nadaswaram holds a unique place in Karnatik music. While other musicians need a performing platform, a nadaswaram vidvan can perform a full concert on public grounds, procession halls, or busy streets packed with music lovers. The instrument itself is well suited for playing in the open air; those who cannot be in the vicinity can still listen and enjoy the melodies from a distance.
Just as the melody of the nadaswaram extends into the community, so has the role of nadaswaram music extended beyond the temples to wider audiences. The nadaswaram is called a mangala vadhyam (auspicious instrument), as every household celebration is accompanied by its music, from a Namakaranam (naming ceremony), to a Grahapravesam (house warming), to a Thirumanam (wedding). The nadaswaram is highly suited for raga alapana (improvised swara elaborations of the raga) and the subtle gamakam (ornamentation) unique to Karnatik music.
During temple and wedding processions, artists render the raga alapana at great length.
The mellifluous music that flows from the nadaswaram is so close to vocal music that when some of the eminent vidvans play, words seem audible. Nadaswaram artists go through many years of rigorous training in vocal as well as instrumental technique. Traditionally, nadaswaram vidvans hail from families that have passed on the tradition for several generations. For this reason, the number of nadaswaram vidvans is relatively low and restricted to a few places in south India. This situation is changing slowly; there are now a few institutions set up by leading artists and other patrons of the art to train more students and revive this art form.
S. Rajendran is the current asthana vidvan at Adi Kesava Perumal temple. “We are blessed to have served Adi Kesava Perumal and Mayuravalli Thayar for four generations,” he says with great pride. “My grandfather, Masilamani, my father, M. Shanmugam, and I have all served the temple, and now my son, R. Mahendran, is fortunate and proud to continue the lineage.”
As a daily routine, his group participates in the Nithya Kala (everyday) puja rituals that the temple follows. During special occasions, they perform popular krithis by Annamacharya, Saint Thyagaraja, and Muthuswami Dikshidhar. “In playing these melodies,” Rajendran says, “One feels ultimate satisfaction, as [the music] is dedicated to the service of God.”
Are new generations of musicians interested in the nadaswaram? Rajendran sees a lot of promise in his current students, who absorb and learn with great enthusiasm. “Even at a young age, they can perform well, and it gives me great pleasure and satisfaction to see my students flourish,” he says.
Of course, as new generations of players learn the nadaswaram, its sounds and applications will evolve. Jazz musicians are among those most likely to take up the instrument. The nadaswaram has been touted by prominent U.S. musicians, notably Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Lewis Spratlan and jazz saxophonist Charlie Mariano. Mariano, who has studied in India, is one of few non-Indians who can play the nadaswaram. Kadri Gopalnath, whose father was a nadaswaram vidvan, was considered a prodigy on the nadaswaram before he began adapting the saxophone to play Karnatik music. He is known today as “Saxophone Chakravarthy,” but his legacy begins with the ancient woodwind.
Revathi Sampath is a long time Bay Area resident and an active member of the classical music and dance community.