Nagaswaram: The instrument that took temple music to its pinnacle is now dying out – in temples

A music historian Lalitha Ram is documenting the nagaswaram and its musicians in an attempt to preserve the tradition.

With one end of the nagaswaram pressed to his lips, Acharyapuram Chinnathambipillai rendered the powerful notes of Mallaari raaga, announcing the arrival of the deity along the stone corridors of the Chidambaram Nataraja temple in Tamil Nadu. Having dedicated more than 50 years of his life to temple music, the 90-year-old knew exactly which raaga traditionally accompanied each of the daily rituals – be it removing the evil eye from the temple premises or garlanding the idol with fresh flowers.

Often compared with the North Indian shehnai, the loud notes of nagaswaram, a conical wind instrument, are considered very auspicious by many Hindu families in the South. From grand weddings to a small ceremony to pierce the ears of a young girl, the sound of the nagaswaram (also known as the nadaswaram) conveys the joyousness of each occasion. During annual temple festivals, Chinnathambipillai’s presence is indispensable. A frail, bespectacled man, he is now among the few remaining nagaswaram musicians who plays the instrument in its traditional style, said writer and Carnatic music historian Lalitha Ram – “With him, we may lose many authentic songs played on the nagaswaram.”


It was to capture the remnants of this tradition that Ram began documenting the traditional nagaswaram music in Shaivite temples in 2013, under the guidance of musician and scholar BM Sundaram. He spent nearly a week recording these artists as they rendered alapanas, or improvisations of raagas, during daily rituals. Scenes from the annual temple festival were recreated to document the music that is played specifically at these occasions.

One artist he spotlighted was Chinnathambipillai. Hailing from a family of nagaswaram musicians, he trained under acclaimed artists such as Chidambaram Radhakrishna Pillai, before embarking on a solo career as a temple musician. “Since some rituals vary in Shaivite and Vaishnavite temples, there are subtle differences between the two traditions,” said Ram, who is now documenting the Vaishnavite tradition. “Chinnathambipillai is one of the only musicians who knows both.”

Evolving traditions

According to the historian, temple music reached its pinnacle with the evolution of nagaswaram. “The roots of most instruments can be attributed to the purpose of announcement – a drumbeat announcing a ritual or a blowing of conch announcing a deity in procession,” said Ram. “Latter-day sophistication resulted in the creation of more melodic instruments. The repetitive monotones were replaced by vibrant music.”

While there is much debate about the advent of the nagaswaram, TM Krishna’s book A Southern Music: Exploring the Karnatik Tradition points to the 15th century as the first time the nagaswaram and the tavil were seen as distinct musical instruments of the temple. By the mid-18th century, they had been playing different ragas at different times of the day at the temple. “Ragas were chosen to depict the mood of the time in relation to the rituals in the temple,” writes Krishna.

For hours together, the nagaswaram players would improvise ragas, rendering alapanas well into the night during festivals. The daily rituals and festivities gave artists the opportunity to hone their skills and exhibit their mastery. The musicians mainly belonged to the Isai Vellalar community, although several Muslim families settled in parts of Andhra Pradesh and Srirangam in Tamil Nadu also mastered the instrument and played it for Hindu festivals.

Chinnathambipillai (centre) playing the nagaswaram at Chidambaram temple. Credit: Nadanum Nathanum via YouTube
Chinnathambipillai (centre) playing the nagaswaram at Chidambaram temple. Credit: Nadanum Nathanum via YouTube

In terms of the evolution of Carnatic music itself, the improvisations played on the nagaswaram in the temple have greatly influenced the music produced at concerts in the city today, said Ram. “The temple centric music transformed into people centric music.”

The nagaswaram too underwent a transformation, which has been attributed to TN Rajarathinampillai, a renowned musician. The instrument which was earlier short and had a high-pitched sound was modified into a longer instrument that could be played in kutcheris, or music concerts.

A dying art

But today, nagaswaram artists are hardly allotted prime slots during the concert season at music sabhas. The artists earn their living by performing primarily at marriages and functions outside the temple. “The artists who aspired to make a living through the art were forced to move out of villages,” said Ram. Now, in most temples, the appointment of temple artists is merely perfunctory – done with little consideration to music, tradition or meaningful livelihood, he said. “They [the artists] are just nameless placeholders. The carefully chiselled out traditions have suffered a slow death.”

According to Krishna’s book, the reduced influence of Brahmins in temples after Periyar’s self-respect movement in Tamil Nadu eventually culminated in the takeover of temples by the government of Tamil Nadu. While the movement was a necessary social awakening, he notes, “it did not lead to a more egalitarian Karnatic music environment, instead spurring it to become even more insular… The government, which took control over the temples, hardly contributed to the development of quality nagasvara or tavil vidvans. The end result has been tragic – lack of support for those Karnatik musicians who once breathed musical life into the temple and society.”

Back to temples

After documenting the Shaivite customs of nagaswaram music, Ram is setting out to document the Vaishnavite tradition.

The director of the documentation intends to put up his entire research online for the public. “When people conduct festivals in temples, they should also start insisting that the nagaswaram tradition is followed,” he said. “What still exists in the Chidambaram temple should be seen in all temples.”

Ram requires Rs 5 lakh for his project and has already raised Rs 2 lakh through a Facebook campaign. He plans to head back to Chidambaram and record the songs of Chinathambipillai and his troupe of artists. “It is not an exaggeration to say that he is the last thread that is holding this tradition together,” said Ram. “If efforts are not made to document this tradition through this rare artist, we are at great risk of losing one more glorious tradition forever.”

Music historian Lalitha Ram.
Music historian Lalitha Ram.
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