The Isai Vēḷāḷar musicians, of which Rajarattinam Pillai was one, are spread across a relatively small area in central Tamil Nadu at present, but are historically important, because of their alleged status as originators and trend-setters. In contrast, barber musicians are found in wide areas in northern and central Tamil Nadu as well as large parts of two neighbouring states, but their role in the history of South Indian music is less certain.
Apart from these two groups, there are several other groups associated with the Periya Mēḷam today. Some are prominent only in certain geographical areas, whereas others belong to a jāti or gender previously unconnected to the Periya Mēḷam, and, though small in number, their very existence may be socio-culturally significant. In this section, a brief description of seven such groups is provided. They are the Muslims in Andhra Pradesh, Nāyars in central Kerala, the Paṇḍārams in southern Tamil Nadu (Tirunelveli district) and southern Kerala, the Mudaliyārs in western Tamil Nadu (Salem and Coimbatore districts), the Kambars in Kanyakumari district, women, and Brahmans. The players belonging to these groups are classified here as non-traditional musicians, since playing in the Periya Mēḷam ensemble is not their hereditary occupation over several generations and they came into this profession in recent years.
The Muslim players in Andhra Pradesh are a possible exception in that their tradition allegedly originated in the 17th century, but the proportion of Periya Mēḷam musicians in the entire population is so small that they are included here as non-traditional musicians. Data used for the discussion of some groups derives primarily from secondary sources, and intensive field-research is to be conducted in the future.
Despite its presumed origin in Hindu temples, Periya Mēḷam music is also performed by followers of Islam. In the Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh, Muslim musicians have been playing Periya Mēḷam music for at least a few generations. While the Hindu Periya Mēḷam musicians belonging to a barber jāti known as Mangala are found in the southern and coastal districts of Andhra Pradesh, their Muslim counterparts are at present concentrated only at two locations in Guntur district: Chilakaluripet, a small town located about 50 kilometers southwest of the city of Guntur, and Karavadi in Ongole taluk. Though they are Muslims, these musicians have adopted Hindu customs and worship Hindu deities as well. They dress like Hindus, play for Hindu weddings, and some have even been attached to Hindu temples as dēvastāṉa vittuvāṉs.
On the surface, the acceptance of Muslim musicians in Hindu temples and domestic rituals may appear contradictory to either religious doctrine, but it is not at all uncommon in India. The hereditary employment of Muslim musicians in Hindu temples in North India is an illustrative example. In the case of Tamil Nadu, the low level of communal friction may have also contributed to the Hindu acceptance of Muslim musicians. Nevertheless, resentment among some orthodox Hindus in the Tanjavur area was apparent when a Muslim nāgasvaram player, Sheik Chinna Moulana (1926-99), and his ensemble were invited to a temple festival in the early 1960s. The opposition of the orthodox to this at that time may be discerned from a newspaper editorial calling for the acceptance of artistically-competent musicians, regardless of their religious affiliations.
While the activity of most Muslim musicians has been confined to their immediate locality in Andhra Pradesh, some players achieved state-wide popularity, a few even in Tamil Nadu, mainly through participation in AIR radio programmes. The immense popularity which the afore-mentioned Chinna Moulana enjoyed nationwide, however, is due partly to his extended training in the Tanjavur area and his eventual migration to Srirangam (Tiruchirappalli district, Tamil Nadu). While Moulana’s musical talent is considered undebatable, the novelty of a Muslim player in the Tanjavur area seems to have facilitated his commercial success, at least in the initial stage of his career.
His fair complexion and sensitivity to Brahman customs are also cited as contributing to the swift rise of his fame in Tamil Nadu. His musical style is usually labelled as belonging to that of Tanjavur, although some senior Isai Vēḷāḷar musicians may disagree. The choice of Srirangam, an important religious centre for Hindus, for his residence and a private nāgasvaram school he ran there is symbolic of the acceptance and status he possessed in Tamil Nadu.
In the central and southern parts of Kerala, temple music has been provided by musicians belonging to a jāti known as Nāyar. They often have the honorific caste title of Panicker to their names. Among the instruments traditionally played by the Nāyars, a double-reed aerophone called kuṟuṅkuḻal is believed to be indigenous to the region. The kuṟuṅkuḻal was once an essential part of daily temple worship and the pañcavādyam (“five instruments”) ensemble, but it is on the verge of extinction with only a few competent exponents performing today. Unlike the nāgasvaram, the kuṟuṅkuḻal was never played for domestic ceremonies, and its exclusive use in temples has probably caused the decline of its tradition, as in the case of many other temple traditions.
The nāgasvaram has replaced the kuṟuṅkuḻal in many performing contexts traditionally associated with the latter, and most kuṟuṅkuḻal musicians double as nāgasvaram players. The introduction of nāgasvaram into Kerala is thought to be relatively recent, and a result of Tamil influence. The Nāyar musicians themselves often admit that the nāgasvaram tradition in Kerala is insubstantial in terms of the overall artistic standard and the number of accomplished musicians when compared to that of Tamil Nadu in general and the Tanjavur area in particular. Many prominent musicians in Kerala have been trained in the Tanjavur area for this reason, and it is still commonly believed that extended musical training in Tanjavur is essential for serious musicianship. Several Nāyar musicians became famous all over South India after discipleship with well-known Isai Vēḷāḷar musicians from Tanjavur district.
Ambalpuzha K Sankaranarayana Panicker (1911-67), one of the best Kerala musicians of his time, became popular due to his training and probably more importantly to his association with Tiruvidaimarudur Virusami Pillai (1901-73) who was at one time attached to the Travancore court. A popular nāgasvaram duo commonly known as the Haripad Brothers also had an extended period of discipleship with him. Another popular Nāyar nāgasvaram player, Varkala Ramakrishna Panicker studied with Kulikkarai Pichaiyappa Pillai, another famous Isai Vēḷāḷar nāgasvaram musician. A Nāyar nāgasvaram player, Thiruvizha Jayashankar, is also popular. Although not trained in Tanjavur, he achieved popularity through radio programmes and by teaming up with the well-known Isai Vēḷāḷar tavil player Valayapatti AR Subramaniam.
Excerpted with permission from TN Rajarattinam Pillai: Charisma, Caste Rivalry and the Contested Past in South Indian Music, Terada Yoshitaka, Speaking Tiger in association with Roja Muthiah Research Library.