Posts Tagged ‘thavil’

Ever since the Parivadini series 2017, I have been talking to various people and have been contemplating Nagaswara artists, their current state in the Carnatic music field, and possible ways to elevate their status in the field.

Twin Worlds

Although we seem to consider Nagaswara music to be a part of Carnatic Music there seem to be many fundamental differences between the so called “Carnatic world” and the “Nagaswaram world”.

The Parivadini Pratibha Series got me thinking about this. The series was open for all. There was no restriction in terms of caste/gender/region or instrument. While we received entries from a diverse set of people, we did not receive a single entry from a Nagaswara artiste. If I were to identify the “next gen” Injikudi Subramaniam or Vyasarpadi Kothandaraman, how was I supposed to figure that out? On the one hand, there is a lot of pessimism about the state of Nagaswaram. On the other, here I am, a genuine well-wisher of Nagaswaram music eagerly wishing for its prosperity but struggling to identify young talents.

To me at first the Nagswara – Non Nagaswara divide appeared to be a consequence of the larger Brahmin – Non Brahmin divide in the Carnatic world at large. For sure carnatic music is restricted to a very small group of people, predominantly Brahmins. But for the moment, let us forget that problem and focus exclusively on Nagaswaram, for the simple reason that it might be better to first stem the rot locally with respect to a specific issue, before we dream of greener pastures. As it turns out, there are other important factors at play here besides caste.

Working The Way Up

Let us take the case of an individual who would like to work her/ his way up in the field as a non-Nagaswara artist. The paths are well defined here. Apart from undergoing training under a Guru, the student exposes her/himself to various concerts through various available avenues. When a child nears her/his teens, s/he starts participating in competitions all over South India. Most of the prominent sabhas conduct competitions on various themes and with demands of varying degrees of complexity. This forces the individual to learn many compositions to widen their repertoire and helps gauge her/himself within peer groups. Of course, there is a key role played by parents in creating avenues for learning, motivating the child to participate in events, etc. Once the parents and the child realize that the child is at least at the average performance level within the community they typically take the next leap. If the child isn’t already learning from one, they seek a Guru of higher reputation (there is a big element of branding that goes into the process of growth in the field). You will then invariably find parents taking a special interest in networking. The child first starts performing several low-profile concerts (ex: temple concerts). The advantages of such performances are many:

  1. These performances typically help the child break out of stage fear.
  2. Recordings of such performances are meticulously scrutinized by the Guru and helps the child assess her strengths and weaknesses.
  3. If the child doesn’t deliver at the expected level, little damage is done in terms of reputation since these concerts are low profile.

Upon gaining reasonable experience performing on stage, a biodata and recordings are floated around in various networks. The child’s talent (to a lesser degree) and the strength of parents’/guru’s network (to a higher degree) result in concert opportunities of more serious nature, at bigger venues.

Most concert opportunities even at this stage typically mean performing without an honorarium. Needless to say, parents are also happy to absorb the costs of preparation/travel etc. They invest a significant amount of their own time as well.

For instrumentalists, a grand arangetram (debut) concert is arranged where the young performer shares the stage with veterans. The hall typically overflows with friends, relatives, musicians and several individuals who are influential in this field.

The above-mentioned process approximately takes a decade.

Another point to remember is that all this while, the child does not compromise on academics. There is absolutely no pressure on the child to reach a level in music that should eventually win her/him their daily bread. The decision to take up music as a full-fledged career usually waits until one is in their late twenties.

At the end of this roughly decade long process, the child’s seriousness towards the art becomes clear and that defines the further course of action. The promising talents, upon doing enough PR exercises, can always land 2-6 afternoon concerts during the December Season (The probability of a concert opportunity in Chennai for a non-Chennai resident is a little low but not zero. Eventually parents figure out who likes “namma kuttan” or “mana vaadu” more than ‘namba paiyan’.) In case of accompanying artists, the opportunities can be even more.

Beyond this point, success in gaining concert opportunities becomes an increasingly complex process. While it is possible to break down someone’s success top-down to its various ingredients, it is difficult to prescribe a fool proof bottom-up formula that works for every promising aspirant.

In any case, there seem to be several promising artists at any given point at various career stages, and for an earnest rasika or an organizer, the talent pool is up to the brim. There is plenty to choose from.

There is enough evidence to suggest that the process detailed above can work as well for a Non Brahmin and Non Nagaswara artist as it does for a Brahmin and Non nagaswara artist.

Now if we look at the Nagaswara world, this well-crafted process of working one’s way up suddenly doesn’t exist anymore.

At a cursory glance, one might conclude that this is because of lack of patronage to Nagaswaram in sabhas. One might argue that the Nagaswaram is restricted to inauguration functions and is not featured in concerts. There is some degree of truth to this, especially if we consider the December Season concerts in Chennai. However, a closer look reveals deeper issues.

Let us look at the population that chooses to learn Nagaswaram and Thavil. Most of this population is in Government aided music schools and colleges that require the student to know how to read and write. There is a small population that learns in the Gurukula mode under some kin who is in the profession. This latter number is insignificant though, and hence I won’t get into it here.

What is the motivation for Nagaswaram students to join such institutions? Is it the love for the art or something else?

The startling answer to this question is that students join such institutes because of poverty. I was quite shaken when I first heard this from a great Nagaswaram artiste.

How does choosing to learn the Mangala Vadhyam help address issues related to poverty?

Here is a candid account from an artiste who worked in one such institution: “Most of the students are either school dropouts or do not have any skill to take up any other vocation. If you travel to interior villages, the Mangala Vadhyam is a part of not just big life events such as marriages but also a part of many smaller events. Hence, the nagaswaram/thavil artists will invariably find an opportunity to play. The key point to note is that although the presence of the artist is inevitable, the quality of music that needs to be presented almost doesn’t matter. All that matters is the ability to produce some kind of sound with the instrument. That is the reason you will find more students opting to learn thavil than Nagaswaram – for it is easier produce sound on Thavil when compared to Nagaswaram. Among the Nagswaram students you will invariably find many dropouts after the first year. This is because the moment the student realizes he can “manage” to play at events he is motivated to put it to use and address his financial woes.”

It is in such tragic conditions that artistes of promise emerge. Unfortunately the talented youngster in such a situation neither has the life skills to work his way up in the urban Carnatic world nor the financial freedom to pursue higher musical goals.

The fact that we have a number of high quality Nagaswaram artists today is nothing short of a glorious miracle. It is as though seeds have sprouted on concrete.

Sociologists unfortunately stop at viewing this issue as a “Brahmin vs. Non Brahmin” thing and think that their job is done if they write or talk about this. While they are angered that the Brahmin controlled sabhas do not host enough Nagswaram concerts and that when such concerts are hosted the audience turn out is distressingly low, they do not think it is necessary for them to turn up to such concerts themselves. (Let us not even get into organizing.) For non Nagaswaram concerts it would be a fair guess that about 75% of the audience that turn up are not really there to enjoy the music. They turn up to honor the request of the artist and genuinely feel that their presence (despite their musical ignorance) has a role to play in encouraging the artist. Unfortunately, this does not happen in the Nagaswaram Concerts.

What is the Solution?

I’ve only got to the tip of the iceberg here. It would be premature to propose a grand solution at this point. However, some preliminary thoughts come to mind:

  1. A scholarship can be initiated for a period of five years to be given to deserving students under a designated, well meaning Guru.  The scholarship should relieve the student of her/his financial woes and allow her/ him to focus on the music alone. This could start with 5 to 10 students and should be used as a motivation to students to take up music seriously and not be complacent merely with some sounds produces.
  2. While the student learns under the designated Guru, opportunities should be created for this student to travel to cities like Chennai and participate in various workshops conducted by musicians and attended by Non Nagaswaram students.
  3. Endowments could be started in Sabhas to conduct Nagaswaram Competitions.
  4. Talented young Nagaswaram artistes should be featured along with young and popular non Nagaswaram artistes so as to create visibility.
  5. Training should be provided on communication and life skills. If possible, we should also help them with some kind of an academic degree.
  6. We should consciously work on bringing more people to Nagaswaram concerts. We should actively spread the idea that attending such events helps a cause and inability to understand the music should not be a deterrent.
  7. DIY webcast kits can be provided to artists so that they can showcase their talent from wherever they are.

While I’m still mulling over these thoughts for several months now, a beginning is made this month.

Apart from the Bi Monthly Nagaswaram series that we started in June 2018, we are planning to give instruments to students that are talented and under financial distress. We gave away three nagaswarams and one thavil (costing a total of ninety thousand rupees) to four young deserving students on 03 Nov 2018.

This thought was initiated through Nagaswara Vidvan Idumbavanam Prakash Ilayaraja. When a student of Ilayaraja, who had graduated from his school, approached him to buy a new nagaswaram – only to realize it was too expensive and had to postpone the buying for another few months before he could save enough to buy a new one (costing INR 15000). This student is a typical case, where an artist all of 18, must depend on his music (having lost his father) to support is entire family and he doesn’t even possess a decent instrument to practice his art. Ilayaraja says, “Such students are there in hundreds and in every district of Tamilnadu”.

I can go on and on. But I will stop here.

I put this post out to create visibility on a grave issue and create an opportunity for discussion and hopefully pave the way for some concrete action.


Details of the Beneficiaries of the first instrument donation event held on 03 Nov 2018

  1. Balaganesh (Age 16) learning under Prakash Ilayaraja at State run music school, Vizhuppuram.
  2. V.Gobeeswaram (Age 9) learning under Thirurameswaram Radhakrishnan, Thanjavur
  3. E.Chandrasekar (Age 18) learning under Prakash Ilayaraja
  4. G.Velmoorthy (age 17) learning under Chinnamanoor Vijaykarthikeyan

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ஆறாம் திருநாளுக்குரிய ராகம் ஷண்முகப்ரியா.

அந்த ராகத்தில் அமைந்த ஆலாபனையை இந்தக் காணொளியில் காணலாம்.

ஆலாபனையைத் தொடர்ந்து பல்லவி இசைக்கப்படும்.

இது போலவே வைணவ மரபையும் ஆவணமாக்க முயன்று வருகிறோம்.

விவரங்கள் இங்கே.

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