The music of wood

Published : Feb 10, 2012 00:00 IST

Thanjavur may have lost its musicians to the big cities, but it is still home to makers of musical instruments.

in Thanjavur

WITH the disintegration of feudalism in the unified Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu, temples there fell on bad days and lack of patronage forced musicians to migrate to cities in search of career avenues. In Chennai, the creation of sabhas attracted more and more musicians, except nagaswaram and thavil players, who preferred to stay back in their native towns and visited the city only for concerts. Today, there are few musicians in the district, and only festivals such as the Tyagaraja Aradhana in Thiruvaiyaru serve as reminders of the days when music flourished in every village irrigated by the Cauvery and its branches. But makers of musical instruments, particularly those of the veena, the nagaswaram and the thavil, the unique instruments of the district, continue to function from there, retaining a link between musicians in Chennai and the native district of many musicians.

Narasinghampettai, a nondescript village a few kilometres from the temple town of Kumbakonam, is one of the few places where the nagaswaram is made. It was here that the instrument went through many changes, resulting in the creation of the present-day pari (long) nagaswaram, replacing its predecessor, the thimiri, the short instrument producing a sharp and high-pitch sound with a shruti of three and above.

Changes in nagaswaram

Nagaswaram wizard Thiruvavaduthurai T.N. Rajarathinam Pillai brought in the changes, for the thimiri demanded enormous lung power and took a toll on the health of nagaswaram players. Besides, he felt that the shuddha madhyamam could not be produced clearly in the thimiri. His experiments produced the desired effect. With its shruti ranging between two or two and half, the pari is perfectly suited for chamber concerts.

Enjikudi E.M. Subramanian, a leading nagaswaram player, said: Hernia was common among nagaswaram players. Unlike today, nagaswaram players used to accompany idols of the presiding deity of temples in processions and played for hours together in the streets. There was a need to keep their body fit to handle both the nagaswaram and the thavil, and a major portion of their income was spent on mutton, chicken, milk and ghee. The creation of the pari put an end to their ordeal. Rajarathinam Pillai and Ranganathan Achari of Narasinghampettai spent days together experimenting with designs before they came up with the pari nagaswaram.

Anusu, the lower part, is made of vaagai [rain tree], and ulavu, the pipe, is from [the wood of] acha maram, which should be at least hundred years old, says S. Guna, a nagaswaram-maker from Narasinghampettai. A different kind of pari nagaswaram is played in the famous Thiyagarajaswamy temple in Tiruvarur: its anusu is made of brass.

Though Guna and his father, Sundararajan, insist that only the wood of acha maram is suitable for making the instrument, they are not able to explain exactly why this is so. Nowadays they depend on old pillars from dismantled buildings for the wood. We buy old pillars from Chettinadu and Puducherry. The wood should be completely dry so that it will not absorb moisture, especially saliva when the musician is performing. Absorption of liquid could change the tonal quality of the instrument, Guna explains.

Guna still produces the instruments manually, while others have switched over to motor-fitted turners for hewing the instrument from the wood. I can make three or four instruments a day, and there is a consistent demand, he says, pointing out that in many families the younger generation has opted out of the family profession to take up white-collar jobs.

Seevali, the reed, is made from a grass that grows on the banks of the Cauvery. Depending on the size of the nagaswaram, the seevali will also change.

Changing thavil

As for the thavil, the accompanying instrument, the drum, is made from the wood of the jackfruit tree. It comes from Panruti in Cuddalore district. Every aspect of the thavil has undergone changes over the years. The man who turned around thavil-making is Porayar Venugopal Pillai, who made the changes to overcome his physical difficulties while tightening the belts (vaar pidithal) of the instrument. He used to accompany the nagaswaram-player Chidambaram Radhakrishna Pillai and during a temple performance he developed high temperature caused by hernia. He almost gave up playing the instrument, until he hit upon the idea of introducing steel belts, nuts and bolts instead of leather belts.

He had watched a drummer playing outside a theatre in Myladuthurai. In those days, bands were organised to attract audiences. He decided to replicate the drum-model in the thavil. After years of experimenting, he produced a perfect instrument. He fixed a steel rod roughly in the middle of the instrument and linked both valanthalai (right side of the instrument) and thoppi (left side) through steel belts. These steel belts demanded a skin that would withstand severe tightening. Traditionally, calf skin was used for valanthalai and goat skin for thoppi. Now, only bull and cow skins are used. The rings for the valanthalai and thoppi are made in Thiruvaiyaru, a holy town for Carnatic musicians since Tyagaraja, one of the Trinity of Carnatic music, attained samadhi here.

Though the modification has enabled thavil players to tighten the instrument in a few minutes in the event of the skin tearing in the middle of a concert, it has brought in a lot of changes in the sound of the instrument. A person who has listened to old maestros playing the instrument and its modern-day version can easily differentiate the beats. The modification also made the instrument louder, drowning the music of nagaswaram.

The stick used for beating the thoppi is made of thiruvachi tree (oleander). The players wear koodus (finger covers) for playing on the valanthalai. In the past they would make it by using cotton cloth and rice paste. Now modern leak-proof materials are used.


Another instrument unique to Thanjavur is the veena, though the veena, with mild variations, can also be found in Mysore, Poppil and Thiruvananthapuram. It was in the court of King Raghunatha Nayak that the changes in the veena were first formulated. For the next 300 years, it went through various transformations before reaching the stage of an instrument with 24 fixed frets. It has three subsidiary drone strings and four playing strings, says Kausalya, an exponent of the instrument and former Principal of the Government Music College in Thiruvaiyaru.

The instrument is at first roughly carved out from the wood of jackfruit tree. One could see many artisans hewing it at the entrance of Sivaganga Poonga in the Thanjavur Palace. The artisans here make two types of veenas: the single veena (ekantha veena) with all its three parts carved together from a single piece of wood and the ottu veena, which is a combination of the kudam (lower part), the dandi (the middle part) and the yali (the face). The kudam of the ottu veena is made separately, and the other parts are joined to it.

K. Mariappan, who is following the family profession of carving kudam for generations, says he can carve three kudams a day. But carving the ekantha veena takes more time.

Asked whether the quality of the music produced in the ekantha veena differed from that of the ottu veena, Kausalya, who has a fine collection of veenas with ottu kudams, said there should be absolutely no difference. It all depends on the artisan who makes it. Sometimes lack of skill on the part of the player also can be the reason for the poor quality of music, she argues. The kudams of her veenas have been embellished with ivory or deer antlers. The yali at the one end of the instrument is also brilliantly decorated. When I am talking about ottu kudams, I want to make it clear that the kudam should be from a single piece of wood and I will not accept making it by joining pieces of woods, she says.

The rough carving of the veena is followed by chiselling and polishing by a different set of workers. In Thanjavur, around 100 families traditionally follow the profession of veena-making. We have 20 workshops providing employment for around 130 people, says P. Srinivasan, who has won a national award for veena-making.

The birudai, or peg for tightening the strings, is made of rosewood, and the surakudukkai at the other end of the instrument is made of fibre. In the olden days, bottle gourd was used for making the surakudukkai. When the fruit appeared on the creeper, the veena makers would place it in an earthen pot and the fruit would take the shape of the pot. Subsequently, papier mache replaced it. Now it is made of fibre, says Kausalya.

According to G. Lakshmanan, a veena tester of the Thanjavur Musical Instruments Workers Cooperative Cottage Industrial Society, only 60 workers have registered with the society. Lakshmanan, who has been travelling in other States to get orders for the veena, says that the prices of the instrument range from Rs.9,500 to Rs.35,000. Instruments with the carvings of gods and goddesses cost more.

Though there is a huge demand for the instrument in the country and abroad, the profession has failed to attract the children of the families involved in it. After receiving a higher education, our children are not ready to take up the profession. We want the government to create manpower through training programmes, says P. Srinivasan.

The trade of making the mridhangam, which once flourished in Thanjavur, shifted to Chennai after the mridhangam players themselves moved to the city. Interestingly, the pioneers of the profession were three Dalit Christian brothers. One of them, Fernandes, made the instrument for Palakkad Mani Iyer, the legendary mridhangam player.

Today their descendants continue their family profession from Apparsamy Koil street in Mylapore, Chennai.

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