Do you hear the nadaswaram?

The majesty of the south Indian pipe is unmatched, but it remains an instrument confined to ritual ceremonies

Music sabhas don't invite nadaswaram players for solo concerts, but the best vocalists secretly absorb its graces 

THE SAXOPHONE and clarinet are recent entrants to the stable of woodwinds in Indian music. A minuscule number of students take them up. Fewer still opt for the nadaswaram, giving rise to apprehensions that the ancient instrument could soon go into near oblivion like the north Indian sarangi.

The nadaswaram has never been a mainstream concert instrument, and many see it only as an appendage to temple and marriage rituals. Most nadaswaram exponents hail from the barber community, and a hierarchy-conscious society has turned a blind eye to their artistry. The slow but steady neglect of this magnificent instrument could mean that it will no longer produce, as it did in the last century, greats of the stature of Rajarathnam Pillai.

Recent name

Nadaswaram is the most recent name given to the long pipe earlier known as nagaswaram and olaga (or valaga). In Kannada, olaga means an august assembly, and S Krishna Murthy, music director and keen observer of the classical music scene, feels the instrument could have acquired that name because it was played regularly at palace gatherings.

The nadaswaram's sound is best heard in open spaces, which is why it has evolved into a procession instrument. No temple procession is complete without a nadaswaram ensemble. The traditional ensemble comprises two nadaswaram players, two dolu (thavil) players, and two shruti accompanists (one on a nadaswaram and the other on what is called a shruti pettige, a harmonium-like instrument that is used to provide the drone).

The nadaswaram's loud sound has worked to its disadvantage in modern times where open space is a luxury. Students cannot learn the instrument in privacy: the instrument announces itself to a radius of at least half a dozen streets.

The nadaswaram came on to the concert stage in the middle of the 20th century, but sabha encouragement has not been consistent. It is not an easy instrument to play. It calls for a good deal of lung power, and the brave ones who pursue it are unhappy about the wall of neglect they come up against. At weddings, they play to a noisy crowd rather than a appreciative, music-aware audience. While wedding assignments bring in much needed money, they are no substitute for the real concert experience. And lavish wedding spenders are not necessarily good paymasters when it comes to dealing with musicians.

Many upper caste vidwans in Mysore, says Krishna Murthy, would secretly walk in temple processions just to hear the nadaswaram. "They thought it was beneath their dignity to listen to music being played by lower caste musicians," he recalls. "But their hearts knew the value of what they were hearing."

Using the mute

B. Ramadasappa and Kodandaramaiah are Bangalore's best-known nadaswaram artistes. Ramadasappa has attempted to recast the instrument: he uses a mute to lower his instrument's volume, and plays with tambura and violin accompaniment. Kodandaramaiah has remained true to tradition.

Musicologists say some of the greatest Carnatic musicians of our times — GNB, Semmangudi and Lalgudi — have consciously absorbed the best elements of nadaswaram playing. Although its influence on vocal and instrumental music is undeniable, the nadaswaram is still struggling to win the respect it truly deserves.