In a recently released short film titled The Singing Woods Of Narasingampettai, directed by Dileep Rangan T. of Big Short Films, we see how a nadaswaram, also called nagaswaram, is made. A cylinder of aged Indian blackwood, or aacha wood, is mounted on a lathe, or pattarai, and carefully shaped into the ulavu, or the pipe of the wind instrument. Then 12 spots are carefully marked and holes drilled into the tube: seven equidistant finger holes on the front and five additional ones at the bottom, used to help with tuning. The funnel-like base of the instrument, anasu—made of vaagaimaram, the wood of the rain tree— which allows musical amplification, is cut and shaped carefully by hand before being joined to the ulavu by brass bushes. Finally, seevali, the mouthpiece, made of reed, is affixed to it. The double-reed wind instrument, the south Indian equivalent of a shehnai and an intrinsic part of Hindu weddings, temple ceremonies and Carnatic music performances, is finally ready.
“This is one of the most important instruments of Carnatic music along with the veena,” says Injikudi E.M. Subramaniam, a music industry stalwart and a 20th-generation nadaswaram player. He refers to it as mangala vadyam, or auspicious instrument, alluding to the fact that the instrument was once used exclusively to produce temple music.
No one is sure exactly how long it has been around but they do know the nadaswaram has been a part of Tamil Nadu’s cultural tradition for centuries. Today, however, the makers of these instruments are struggling to survive. The decline of live music and changing cultural norms, with fewer temples insisting on the nadaswaram tradition, has taken its toll on demand.
While nadaswarams are made all across Tamil Nadu, the place most synonymous with the instrument is the tiny village of Narasinganpettai in Thanjavur district—the skill and know-how of the craft is now limited to a few, some say as few as four, families who live there. This is the only place in the state that makes the bari nadaswaram, while is longer and lower in pitch compared to the timiri nadaswaram, the older version of the instrument. In March, the Narasingapettai nadaswaram was awarded a Geographical Indication tag, nearly a decade after the Thanjavur veena got one. “We have been fighting almost eight years for it,” says P. Sanjai Gandhi, the nodal officer for GI registration of products in the Tamil Nadu government.
Will it make a difference? Gandhi believes it will shine a spotlight on the makers, not just the players. In the application he had filed on behalf of the Thanjavur Musical Instruments Workers Cooperative Cottage Industrial society in 2014, he had written, “It takes three days and three artisans to make one Nagaswaram.” Yet, he noted in the application, “According to the manufacturers, at the end of the day, the artists are honoured and not the makers.” Satish Selvaraj, 29, who comes from a family that played a pivotal role in putting this instrument on the map, hopes that will change. “I am not sure of the larger benefits we will get. But at least this recognises our effort,” he says.
Like all wind instruments, Gandhi believes, the nadaswaram’s origins lie in prehistoric man’s attempt to coax music out of conch shells, hollowed-out animal horns and bamboo reeds. He says the nadaswaram has been part of the Dravidian identity for centuries, even predating the Aryan influx. “Silappathikaram (an epic poem by the fifth-sixth century poet Illanko Adigal) refers to an instrument called vangiyam,” he noted in the application, adding that the structure of the instrument described resembles a nadaswaram. Temples then were not just places of worship but bastions of learning and culture, and the sole patrons of this music. Later, it began to be played in royal courts and music sabhas. “Classical music itself was supposed to be religious in nature and was deemed to be an offering to Gods,” wrote Gandhi, quoting musicologist B.M. Sundaram. “The Nagaswaram (Nadaswaram) was exclusively catering to that in the early days.”
Not surprisingly, Thanjavur’s temple heritage—it is home to three great living Chola temples—meant that it soon became an important centre for classical music, spawning many musical virtuosos, including the “three jewels of Carnatic music”, Tyagaraja, Muthuswami Dikshitar and Syama Sastri. Additionally, many workshops making musical instruments, filled with trained craftspeople, sprang up in this area. They included those making the nadaswaram.
Going by what Selvaraj says, Narasingapettai’s association with the instrument is more recent. According to him, his great-grandfather, Govindasamy Achari, visited a village near Mayiladuthurai—part of Thanjavur district until 1991—to learn the craft. But it was his grandfather, Ranganathan Achari, who played a vital role in making the instrument and the place synonymous with each other.
In the mid-1940s, says Selvaraj, the famed nadaswaram player T.N. Rajarathnam Pillai approached his grandfather asking for a modified version of the nadaswaram. “The nadaswaram used to be shorter and its pitch higher,” writes journalist Aparna Karthikeyan in her book Nine Rupees An Hour: Disappearing Livelihoods Of Tamil Nadu, pointing out that this meant that players struggled to play popular ragams (melodic frameworks) like Sankarabharanam on it. It also could not be used as an accompanying instrument because the pitch of the instrument could not mix with the human voice.
Ranganathan Achari’s version of the instrument changed how it sounded completely. In his book A Southern Music: The Karnatik Story, musician, writer and activist T.M. Krishna points out that in the early 20th century, the instrument went from being a short, high-pitched instrument (timirinagaswara) to a longer one (barinagaswara). “Many attribute this change to Vidvan T.N. Rajaratnam Pillai and to his assertion that he would render kutcheris like vocalists, seated, using the longer length to rest the instrument on the floor.” Pillai, adds Selvaraj, loved the change and went on to order more such instruments. In 1947, on the day of India’s freedom, the musician—known for both his genius and tempestuousness—used the modified nadaswaram to perform for Jawaharlal Nehru and other leaders; his performance was aired on AIR too. “But Ranganathan Achari, the wizard who made the instrument, is not known outside the world of nadaswaram players,” writes Karthikeyan.
It is something that Selvaraj worries about, too—a lot. Perhaps that is why he spent his early 20s refusing to take up the family business, choosing to drive a tourist van instead. “Many people have left this profession because it is no longer profitable,” he says. The average cost of making an instrument is around ₹3,500-4,000, which includes the purchase and transport of the blackwood, which should be at least 60 years old, and the labour charges. On average, a nadaswaram sells for ₹5,000-6000, so profit on average is barely ₹1,000-1,500.
Moreover, business can be erratic. While during some months, like January and February—auspicious months in Tamil calendar—they get 20-30 orders a month, in others, it trickles down to around 10. “Also, it is handmade, and we can make only a few a month anyway,” says Selvaraj, who has around four-five people in his workshop, including his brother, Prakash.
However, the artisans are trying their best to find solutions and create more markets, something they hope the GI will help with. A number of music colleges have bourgeoned across the state, for instance. “The government should talk to them and ask them to come to us for regular orders,” believes Selvaraj, who is also figuring out how to negotiate the online marketplace. Because fight for the nadaswaram he will, come what may; it is why he chose to return to the profession, despite its challenges. “Our family is doing it because we want to live up to my grandfather’s legacy,” he says. “It was my (late) father’s dream that we follow this passion.”