An instrument of change: Review of ‘T.N. Rajarattinam Pillai’ by Terada Yoshitaka

Terada Yoshitaka’s comprehensive book tells the story of the nagaswaram through the life of the legendary T.N. Rajarattinam Pillai.

Published : Aug 10, 2023 11:00 IST - 10 MINS READ

A file picture of the nagaswaram legend T.N. Rajarattinam Pillai.

A file picture of the nagaswaram legend T.N. Rajarattinam Pillai. | Photo Credit: THE HINDU ARCHIVES

The nagaswaram, often called mangala vadyam (‘auspicious musical instrument’), is steeped in south India’s cultural ethos. Its piercing, melodious sounds suffuse the air during temple rituals, festivals and processions, and auspicious domestic rites of passage among Hindus. At times it is also prominent in non-religious public functions.

T.N. Rajarattinam Pillai: Charisma, Caste Rivalry and the Contested Past in South Indian Music
Terada Yoshitaka
Speaking Tiger
Pages: 464
Price: Rs.599

Colloquially called nadaswaram, this double reed aerophone is the centre piece of a traditional performance ensemble called ‘periya melam’. The rich history of periya melam, dating from at least the Vijayanagara period to the present day, with its parallels with and distinctness from Carnatic music, is the theme of the book.

The author, Terada Yoshitaka, was Professor Emeritus at the National Museum of Ethnology, Osaka. His research interests included the interplay between minorities and music, and globalisation and south Indian music. The doctoral research upon which the book is based was done from the mid-1980s and completed in 1992 at Washington University.

The book, co-published by Roja Muthiah Research Library, came out three decades later, an exercise in “reliving my formative years,” in the author’s own words. Sadly, Yoshitaka passed away before the first copy of the book could reach him.

Cover of Charisma, Caste Rivalry and the Contested Past in South Indian Music by Terada Yoshitaka

Cover of Charisma, Caste Rivalry and the Contested Past in South Indian Music by Terada Yoshitaka | Photo Credit: Special arrangement.

Although some writing on the nagaswaram is available, this book, with its comprehensive sweep and meticulous documentation, is a striking addition to the literature. Yoshitaka tells the story of the instrument and how deeply it is embedded in the periya melam system through the life and times of its most famous practitioner, T.N. Rajarattinam Pillai, who had a huge influence on the way periya melam adapted to modernity.

In equal part, Yoshitaka contextualises Rajarattinam Pillai within the framework of the historical connection between periya melam and Carnatic music, which he frames within the Brahmin-non-Brahmin dynamics of the Dravidian movement.

A third aspect of the book is a detailed description of the technical aspects of the instrument: its structure and techniques of making and playing. The book moves in multiple directions, trying to combine the portrait of a celebrated individual musician with the life of a cultural phenomenon and connect it to a political movement, which is an ambitious task.

Early days

The book starts with a chapter on Rajarattinam Pillai. He was born in 1898 in Thiruvavaduthurai in Thanjavur district in a family of traditional nagaswaram players from the Isai Vellalar community. The moniker was created after the Madras Devadasi Act 1947 abolished the old system.

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He was adopted by his maternal uncle Thirumarugal Natesa Pillai, a distinguished nagaswaram player attached to the influential Saiva Siddhanta monastery, the Thiruvavaduthurai adheenam. It played a significant role in Rajarattinam Pillai’s musical development. Eventually he was appointed as its ‘adheena vidwan’. As an aside, Rajarattinam Pillai was a prominent member of the entourage from the Thiruvavaduthurai adheenam that met Prime Minister-designate Jawaharlal Nehru on August 14, 1947, and presented him with the sengol, which was in the news recently.

Rajarattinam Pillai showed enormous talent even as a child. He trained and apprenticed under several musicians, both Isai Vellalars and Brahmins. He entered the profession at an early age and gained great fame and wealth. He ruled the field as ‘Nagaswara Chakravarti’ until his premature death in 1956. He made several changes that were aimed at reviving the glory of the nagaswaram in the concert format. He also astutely rode the wave of the changes in performance media and audience taste.

Until then, Carnatic music and periya melam, though evolved from a common source, had functioned as separate streams. The former took upon itself the mantle of true classical concert music. The latter was predominantly connected to temple ritual, as a result of which it had sacred status in the traditional milieu but was not considered suitable for concerts. Rajarattinam Pillai bridged this gap. He played on the concert stage, won accolades from Carnatic musicians, and gave a new eminence to the nagaswaram.

Next, Yoshitaka takes up the periya melam ensemble itself, with detailed descriptions of the nagaswaram, tavil, talam, and sruti petti instruments, and the players. He analyses the range of changes Rajarattinam Pillai brought to this ensemble, and also the changes that have occurred after his passing.

To cite a few, the number of nagaswarams in an ensemble was increased to enhance the dramatic impact of its unique sound. Compositions were prioritised over pure alapana. Microphone technology led to the lowering of tonic pitch, which is more suitable for indoor concerts. The sruti petti replaced the ottu drone in order to economise. The increasing popularity of the percussion tavil changed the exclusive dominance of the nagaswaram artiste. The nagaswaram also became popular in films. In the following two chapters, Yoshitaka broadens his scope to look at the historical, cultural, caste and political contexts of nagaswaram music. He returns to Rajarattinam Pillai only in the sixth and last chapter, where he presents multiple interpretations of his role and significance.

Chapter 3 on periya melam as a dynamic performance ensemble details the construction of the instruments, playing techniques, the instrument makers, and formal structure and relations among the players in the ensemble organised around caste and kinship.

In Chapter 4, the author delves into the performance contexts of periya melam, its significant role in the temple traditions of the Thanjavur region, and in domestic ritual, including marriages in all castes. Also, he shines a light on the newly emerged contexts of concert hall programmes, radio programmes, films, and disc recordings.

Nagaswaram artistes Vijay Karthikeyan and Ilayaraja performing at a temple in Idumbavanam in Tamil Nadu’s Thiruvarur district. The nagaswaram, which was and continues to be closely connected with temple ritual, was given a new eminence by T.N. Rajarattinam Pillai.

Nagaswaram artistes Vijay Karthikeyan and Ilayaraja performing at a temple in Idumbavanam in Tamil Nadu’s Thiruvarur district. The nagaswaram, which was and continues to be closely connected with temple ritual, was given a new eminence by T.N. Rajarattinam Pillai. | Photo Credit: The Hindu Archives

History of periya melam

Periya melam performers were traditionally from the Isai Vellalar community. Narrowly defined, it comprised only the Melakkarars of Thanjavur district. But, as Yoshitaka details graphically in Chapter 5, the category of Isai Vellalar was porous. There were some players who came from outside the community, particularly the Maruttuvars of the northern districts, belonging to the barber caste, who were also prominently associated with the nagaswaram. The two were rivals, with Melakkarars asserting their superiority and Maruttuvars claiming equality.

There were also some performers from the Muslim and the Nayar, Pandaram, and Mudaliyar communities, and women were also making their presence felt. Then there was also internal differentiation based on sub-caste and lineage. Periya melam claimed a higher status than chinna melam, comprising performers and teachers of Sadir (the source form of Bharatanatyam), with a strong link to devadasis. Even within Periya melam, there was a hierarchy among performers expressed through income differentials, attire, spatial placement in concerts, and other shows of deference.

Thanjavur was regarded highly as the hub of the classical arts of south India. Its nagaswaram players carried more prestige than those in Chennai, Andhra, Karnataka, and Kerala. From a caste perspective, although Brahmins did not play the nagaswaram, they were among its primary patrons. We get a picture of south Indian music thoroughly entangled in the minutiae of caste-based differentiation across all castes.

The theme of the book is tied up with the contexts of the performing arts, connection to temples, royal grants, and ritual and ceremonial functions domestically and in the public domain. The substantive chapters are painstakingly done, citing historical research and the author’s primary ethnographic research.

The last chapter contains insights into how Rajarattinam Pillai was looked upon by three groups—Brahmins, Isai Vellalars, and Maruttuvars. The Brahmin elite, who were performers and patrons of Carnatic music, had admiration and respect for Rajarattinam Pillai’s music but were disdainful of his personal life. His multiple marriages, many liaisons, and excessive alcohol consumption were implied to reflect his community origins.

Fighting caste within music

Rajarattinam was both close to Carnatic musicians and also resentful of their treatment of nagaswaram music. There was a “desire to imitate and often outdo customs and habits associated with Brahman musicians and patrons,” but the underlying idea was to challenge Brahmin supremacy in music. The Isai Vellalar community was proud that he had managed to storm the Carnatic music bastion and succeeded in elevating the status of nagaswaram music, but were also critical of him for “selling out” and resentful that his personal lifestyle had led to smearing the entire community. In contrast, the Maruttuvars appreciated Rajarattinam Pillai’s musical talents but did not see it as exclusive to his caste. Rather, they claimed equal footing with the Isai Vellalars through kinship with his music.

Two appendices provide short bios of musicians consulted in the research and a list of Rajarattinam Pillai’s recordings. Three annexures provide an elaboration of the musical environment of the last century: the decline of periya melam music, challenges posed by the Tamil Isai movement to Carnatic music, and the circular musical flow between south India and its diaspora.

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Yoshitaka’s effort to combine an intimate portrait of a gifted individual with a larger-than-life personality with the history and the present-day situation of a rich music culture is brave and sincere. But the execution is somewhat unwieldly; the narrative lacks sharp focus. The portrait of Rajarattinam Pillai has many interesting nuggets of information but falls short of giving textured glimpses into his psychological landscape, its dilemmas and contradictions, which a full biography with a light contextualisation could have done.

Moreover, since the 1980s, the craft of ethnography has undergone radical changes in form and substance. The author’s old-style ethnography leads to pedantic forays into minor, irrelevant, and distracting alleys and byways. What may be acceptable for a PhD thesis may, in a book, affect the taut narrative and flow. His treatment of regions outside Thanjavur periya melam, while important for building the context, is casual and sketchy.

An open air nagaswaram recital organised by SPIC-MACAY, at University of Hyderabad in 2015.

An open air nagaswaram recital organised by SPIC-MACAY, at University of Hyderabad in 2015. | Photo Credit: MOHAMMED YOUSUF

Right at the beginning, Yoshitaka poses a question. Why has a musical tradition of religious and social importance in south India been neglected by scholars? He adds that this was not his primary concern when researching, but one he asked while writing the book, three decades on.

Periya melam was performed by other communities whereas Carnatic music in the last two centuries has been dominated by the Brahmin community. This point has been given central importance in the book, although in his concluding chapter, Yoshitaka admits that his theme of Brahmin hegemony needs more elaboration and substantiation.

Ignoring the multiple discourses around south Indian music culture would lead to oversimplification. With such caveats, Yoshitaka avoids the perils of reductionism.

Changing times

There are complex factors at play, many of which are common to Carnatic music and periya melam. The gurukulam system gradually gave way to institutionalised training. Outsiders came into the fold, and the exclusivity of the Thanjavur Isai Vellalars diminished. The audience and venues for performance changed. Carnatic music adapted to changing times by streamlining the concert format. The basic character of the nagaswaram made it less amenable to the indoor concert format. The public, ceremonial context of the past, which gave economic and social status to periya melam performers, has meanwhile changed, with temples coming under state control. In the case of wedding celebrations, public taste has changed. The trend is to reduce the instrument’s role, replacing it with film songs and light music orchestras.

Japanese scholars studying Indian history and culture are not many in number. In general, they have focussed on Buddhism, Sanskrit, and north India.

An exception is Noboru Karashima, the illustrious epigraphist of medieval south India. In this genre, Yoshitaka’s book is commendable for its omnibus approach and thorough documentation. That it follows too many threads, diluting the tight and focussed narrative needed to keep the reader hooked, is a minor quibble. Also, the paper and print quality and reproduction of photographs are less than appealing for a book that has great archival value.

Kamala Ganesh is a sociologist based in Mumbai.

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