Nagaswaram Gets its Due with a Exclusive Festival

The nagaswaram, which is usually sidelined at most sabhas during the December music season, seems to be making a comeback. This year sabhas are giving chance  to nagaswaram artists apart from organising exclusive festival in January 2012, right after the music season winds up. “There is more demand for nagaswaram performances in the last five years probably because more listeners are developing a taste for it,” says S Kasim, nagaswaram artist.

Earlier, when nagaswaram set the tone for any auspicious occasion, at temples or weddings, singers used to flock to listen to the masters. “Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer once told me how he would not miss any kutcheri by T N Rajarathinam Pillai at Kapaleeswarar temple in Mylapore during the chilly Margazhi months,” says nagaswaram player Tirukoilur E Babu.

It is the ‘gayaki’ style of sound production of nagaswaram, which closely mirrors singing, that helped develop vocal music, says Kasim. “The decline of the instrument began more than a decade ago when smaller temples discontinued using the nagaswaram for its rituals,” he says. The wind instrument with a long, body and a flaring bell, is usu- accompanied by a thavil, a ind of drum. “Both thavil nd nagaswaram are called rajavadyams’ , capable of roducing loud sounds that on’t need to be amplified by mikes,” says A K Pazhanivel , thavil artist. With temples bringing down the number of nagaswaram kutcheris, artists have not only lost a steady source of income but an opportunity to expand their repertoire, says Pazhanivel. “At temples, we used to play for hours. Now, you barely get two hours, especially during the season ,” he says.

With a dip in quality, the artists lost out on listeners too. Nalini Ravindran, a Carnatic music fan, says she doesn’t enjoy the power-packed , and sometimes loud, nagaswaram kutcheris. “There was a time when we used to go to listen to masters like Karaikurichi Arunachalam, but not any more, as I don’t find artists to be of that calibre,” she says.

The challenge is multi-fold for artists reinventing their art. “Sound control is important as the instrument is meant to be played outdoors. But it can be adjusted to hall acoustics,” says Babu. Also, you should try not to pack in too much for a season concert.

Babu and his brother Kumar, who performed on December 20 this year, say they bank on the instrument’s ability to produce some fast-paced music, almost like a breathless one-day cricket match.

“We don’t keep much gap between songs or do too much of raga exposition as audience doesn’t have much time during the season,” says Babu. “During season concerts, the audience is eager to move from one artist to the other. We should keep that in mind and try to give them what they want,” he says. To showcase his skills, he prefers to wait for nagaswaram festivals organised by the artists. “There we can explore ragas to our heart’s content,” he says.

Insight into Nagaswaram (Nadaswaram)

The Nagaswaram (often referred to as Nadaswaram owing to its rich tone), belongs to the wood-wind family. It is known as a Mangala Vadya (‘mangala’ means auspicious and ‘vadya’ means instrument), since it is played in temples, processions and other auspicious occasions like festivals and marriages. The Nagaswaram ensemble is known as the Periya melam and generally consists of a lead Nagaswaram player, the Ottu or drone, the Tavil player and a tala-keeper with a pair of bronze cymbals known as Jaalra.

Types: There are two varieties of Nagaswaram:

Timiri, which is shorter (usually about one and a half feet) and higher in pitch.

Bari, which is longer (two or two and a half feet) and lower in pitch.

Construction: The Nagaswaram is a double reed instrument with a conical bore that gradually enlarges towards the lower end. It is usually made of a type of seasoned ebony, although there are Nagaswarams made of sandalwood, redwood, silver, gold, etc. The top portion consists of a metal staple (called mel anaichu) and into this is inserted a small metallic cylinder called kendai. The kendai carries the mouthpiece, seevali, which is made of reed. Along with spare reeds, a small needle, known as kuchchi, made of ivory or horn, is attached to the Nagaswaram. The needle is used to clear the mouth-hole of saliva particles and allow air to pass through. The bottom is decorated with a metallic bell called the keezh anaichu.

Tuning: The standard Nagaswaram, Bari, which is commonly used today is usually set between 2 and 3 (D and E).

Playing technique: The Nagaswaram has seven finger-holes. There are 5 additional holes drilled at the bottom, which are used as controllers. Like the flute, the Nagaswaram has a range of two and a half octaves and the fingering techniques are similar. While in the flute, semi and quarter notes are produced by the partial opening and closing of the finger-holes, in the Nagaswaram, they are produced by varying the power of air blown into the pipe. This makes it a very strenuous instrument to play.

The Ottu, a drone instrument, is a part of the Nagaswaram ensemble. It is similar to the Nagaswaram in shape and structure, but is slightly longer. However, it has only one finger-hole to produce the desired note. At the upper end of the instrument there is a reed into which, the player blows.


The Tavil is the drum that is traditionally used in the Nagaswaram ensemble but in recent years, it has been experimented with other instruments. The Tavil is a very loud instrument with a tone very different from that of the Mridangam.

Construction: The Tavil is a double-headed drum made out of a solid block of seasoned jack wood which is hollowed out to form a cylindrical shape. The solid block is about 16 inches long and has a diameter of about 13 ½ inches. The two heads are made of animal skin and are stretched over hoops made of hemp and bamboo sticks, which are bundled together on either side of the cylinder. The hoops are fastened by interlaced leather straps or braces. A band of leather runs over the braces around the middle of the drum and is used to vary the timbre marginally. The tightening of the band stretches the skin and raises the timbre.

Tuning: The Tavil is not tuned to any particular pitch.

Playing technique: The left head is played with a thick stick while the right is played with the fingers of the right hand. Caps made of hardened rice-paste are worn on the right fingers.


Posted on December 27, 2011, in Art, Events and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: