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Nagaswaram masters from Chennai

Special feature

Who pays the piper?

No auspicious ceremony is complete without it, yet the great art of nagaswaram playing is fading. An extensive study of how the masters live, and why their children are reluctant to continue their invaluable legacy

The nagaswaram has to receive far more encouragement if it is to survive 20 years from now. This might sound like a doomsday prediction, but it is based on the present condition of nagaswaram players, the remuneration they receive, the sabha support they get, and most important, audience receptivity. Reviewers too rarely touch on nagaswaram performances in their columns.

Each of these factors is in a way interlinked, turning it into a vicious circle which can be broken only by active intervention by either the government or large-hearted philanthropists who love the resonance of this instrument.

It's like this. Nagaswaram artistes say that music sabhas do not give them enough opportunities for playing. The sabhas say the instrument does not draw the crowds and so they don't get sponsors. That's why they have to restrict themselves to a nagaswaram performance once or twice a year, mostly to launch their annual festivals. These performances are invariably scheduled inconveniently - before the inaugural day's speeches, which means the artiste plays to an empty hall.

It is a rare artiste who can put up an inspired performance before blank chairs, so the quality of the rendition also suffers.

Temple patronage

Artistes survive by attaching themselves to temples, which are their only hope. The government pays a meagre monthly salary of Rs 1,000 to some artistes. Of course, the nagaswaram has always been associated with the temple as a member of the panchavadyam or as a standalone. But so was the artistic form, dance. Dance flourished only after it became popular outside the temple, and similarly nagaswaram can flourish only if it is appreciated outside that religious ambience.

The other ceremonial occasion where the nagaswaram is in demand, the marriage, is not much of an income earner. People who spend lakhs on tinsel glitz stint when it comes to paying the nagaswaram artistes. The artistes are not happy in the noisy environment either -- convention brings them to marriage halls rather than people who enjoy music.

Given these problems, perhaps it is not surprising that children of nagaswaram players are not taking to the traditional art. The main constraint seems to be lack of sufficient income. Still, a few intrepid souls have persevered with this art.

The leading and most sought after nagaswaram artiste in Chennai today is Mambalam M K S Siva. A highly talented artiste, Siva has been performing for more than 25 years. He learnt the instrument from his father Mambalam M K Swaminathan and went for further training under Kalakkadu S Ramanarayana Iyer. He performed with his elder brother Palanisami for three years. Now his younger brother M K S Natarajan accompanies him.

The heartening news is that the Siva family has four nagasvaram artistes and two thavil vidwans. Today, five young nagaswaram musicians are being nurtured in the family.

American interest

Apart from them, Siva has 100 disciples. One of his advanced students is William Skeltin from a University in the US, who has been learning with him for the last 15 years. He has a student from South Africa called S Nanbanathan.

Siva says the monthly salary of Rs 1,000 fixed by the government is not enough to support a family. He is the asthana vidwan at the Thyagaraya Nagar Siva Vishnu temple in Chennai and a "temporary" asthana vidwan at the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam. Siva wonders why temples, which provide accommodation to other temple staff, do not do so for asthana vidwans.

He also points out while temples are willing to barely support a nagaswaram artiste, they do not understand that a his music can have its full effect only with proper accompaniments like the thavil, sruti and talam. To cut on the expense, they ask the nagaswaram artiste to play on his own.

It is shocking how little nagaswaram artistes are paid by temples. In most cases, it is just Rs 50 a performance, which may not even cover the auto fare.

Radio's cutting down

Musicians also look to All India Radio for exposure and income. Siva says the Prasar Bharati's new rules allow fewer Karnatak music concerts, resulting in fewer opportunities for nagaswara vidwans too.

The total number of concerts has been reduced to five per year for an 'A' grade artiste. Siva says that for the past five months now he has not heard anything from AIR about his next performance.

In the AIR slot for nagaswaram in its 5 a.m. Mangala Isai, the artiste's name is not featured. When it comes to putting new artistes on its rolls, AIR should have nagaswaram and thavil artistes on the audition board because only they can understand the art fully, he says.

Siva recalls that during the tenure of the late M G Ramchandran as chief minister of Tamil Nadu, mangalavadyam was a major item before any social and government meeting. A nagasvaram vidwan used to perform for one to one and a half hours before meetings began. The current authorities do not give due recognition for the instrument, he says.

During the Annamalai Manram's annual pallavi competition, no nagasvaram musician from Chennai is invited, though there are highly qualified musicians here, Siva says.

Siva is well qualified to talk about the nagaswaram. He has performed abroad, and has played jugalbandis with artistes like Vishwa Mohan Bhatt. With violinist A Kanyakumari and Mudicondan Ramesh, he has been performing for 12 years. He has brought out a cassette with Nityashree Mahadevan and another with Thavil Palanivel. He has been secretary of the Chennai Chengai Tiruvallur Mangala Isai Kalaingar Sangam for six years since its inception. He has requested the Thiruvaiyaru Thyaga Brahmam Trust to have five nagaswaram artistes as committee members, but it has offered to take only two.

Free school that shut down

The artistes' sangam has started a free school at a temple. About 100 children came for the initial classes. But owing to lack of space, the temple wanted the classes to be stopped. The school was closed. This is a typical example where the government could have made a difference.

If Siva is determined to fight all odds and further the cause of nagaswaram, there are others who are hesitant to put their children in this field. The two sons of S Balasubramaniam know how to play the nagaswaram, but their father is firm that they will take up some other profession.

Visitors to the famous Kapaleeswarar temple in Mylapore at dawn or dusk can hear the pleasing strains of the nagaswaram. Regulars know that the performer is Balasubramaniam, who has been carrying out this task faithfully for the last 20 years.

Born in 1947 to Mayuram Govindaraja Pillai, himself a nagaswaram player, Balasubramaniam is a B grade artist at All India Radio, Chennai. He has been awarded titles like Vidhya Visharadha, Isai Selvam and NadhaIsaivalar. He has once given a performance in Singapore. He feels strongly that this instrument is not getting a good response from audiences.

That, he says, is why income comes only from playing at temples and at marriages. Nagaswaram artistes like him cannot change their profession now, since they do not know anything else. Which is why he is ensuring that his sons are equipped to earn a living some other way.

Not just bad luck

E Singaravelu too comes from a family of nagaswaram players. He hails from Thiruvahindapuram near Cuddalore, where his father Rajagopala Pillai was a nagaswaram vidwan. He learnt nagaswaram from T Govindaraja Pillai. He worked for a couple of years at the Vanaspathi Venkatesa Mandir and another couple of years at the Vaikunta Nathar temple in Calcutta.

From 1982 he has been playing at the famous Parthasarathi Temple in Triplicane, Chennai. When Singaravelu started there, his salary was Rs 275 a month. Today, this has risen to Rs 4,250, but it does not keep pace with the cost of living.

Singaravelu says with some sadness that perhaps he is not lucky - his close friend Jaishankar is now a better-known nagaswaram performer.

One feels that luck does not have much to do with his problems. It is an entirely man-made situation. And what is man made can be rectified. It requires a combination of imagination, vision, will, and of course, money, to raise nagaswaram to the levels it once held.

Ambujam Anantharaman
(with inputs from K Arvind)

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