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.
Support our journalism by subscribing to Scroll+ here. We welcome your comments at
Sponsored Content BY 

The next Industrial Revolution is here – driven by the digitalization of manufacturing processes

Technologies such as Industry 4.0, IoT, robotics and Big Data analytics are transforming the manufacturing industry in a big way.

The manufacturing industry across the world is seeing major changes, driven by globalization and increasing consumer demand. As per a report by the World Economic Forum and Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Ltd on the future of manufacturing, the ability to innovate at a quicker pace will be the major differentiating factor in the success of companies and countries.

This is substantiated by a PWC research which shows that across industries, the most innovative companies in the manufacturing sector grew 38% (2013 - 2016), about 11% year on year, while the least innovative manufacturers posted only a 10% growth over the same period.

Along with innovation in products, the transformation of manufacturing processes will also be essential for companies to remain competitive and maintain their profitability. This is where digital technologies can act as a potential game changer.

The digitalization of the manufacturing industry involves the integration of digital technologies in manufacturing processes across the value chain. Also referred to as Industry 4.0, digitalization is poised to reshape all aspects of the manufacturing industry and is being hailed as the next Industrial Revolution. Integral to Industry 4.0 is the ‘smart factory’, where devices are inter-connected, and processes are streamlined, thus ensuring greater productivity across the value chain, from design and development, to engineering and manufacturing and finally to service and logistics.

Internet of Things (IoT), robotics, artificial intelligence and Big Data analytics are some of the key technologies powering Industry 4.0. According to a report, Industry 4.0 will prompt manufacturers globally to invest $267 billion in technologies like IoT by 2020. Investments in digitalization can lead to excellent returns. Companies that have implemented digitalization solutions have almost halved their manufacturing cycle time through more efficient use of their production lines. With a single line now able to produce more than double the number of product variants as three lines in the conventional model, end to end digitalization has led to an almost 20% jump in productivity.

Digitalization and the Indian manufacturing industry

The Make in India program aims to increase the contribution of the manufacturing industry to the country’s GDP from 16% to 25% by 2022. India’s manufacturing sector could also potentially touch $1 trillion by 2025. However, to achieve these goals and for the industry to reach its potential, it must overcome the several internal and external obstacles that impede its growth. These include competition from other Asian countries, infrastructural deficiencies and lack of skilled manpower.

There is a common sentiment across big manufacturers that India lacks the eco-system for making sophisticated components. According to FICCI’s report on the readiness of Indian manufacturing to adopt advanced manufacturing trends, only 10% of companies have adopted new technologies for manufacturing, while 80% plan to adopt the same by 2020. This indicates a significant gap between the potential and the reality of India’s manufacturing industry.

The ‘Make in India’ vision of positioning India as a global manufacturing hub requires the industry to adopt innovative technologies. Digitalization can give the Indian industry an impetus to deliver products and services that match global standards, thereby getting access to global markets.

The policy, thus far, has received a favourable response as global tech giants have either set up or are in the process of setting up hi-tech manufacturing plants in India. Siemens, for instance, is helping companies in India gain a competitive advantage by integrating industry-specific software applications that optimise performance across the entire value chain.

The Digital Enterprise is Siemens’ solution portfolio for the digitalization of industries. It comprises of powerful software and future-proof automation solutions for industries and companies of all sizes. For the discrete industries, the Digital Enterprise Suite offers software and hardware solutions to seamlessly integrate and digitalize their entire value chain – including suppliers – from product design to service, all based on one data model. The result of this is a perfect digital copy of the value chain: the digital twin. This enables companies to perform simulation, testing, and optimization in a completely virtual environment.

The process industries benefit from Integrated Engineering to Integrated Operations by utilizing a continuous data model of the entire lifecycle of a plant that helps to increase flexibility and efficiency. Both offerings can be easily customized to meet the individual requirements of each sector and company, like specific simulation software for machines or entire plants.

Siemens has identified projects across industries and plans to upgrade these industries by connecting hardware, software and data. This seamless integration of state-of-the-art digital technologies to provide sustainable growth that benefits everyone is what Siemens calls ‘Ingenuity for Life’.

Case studies for technology-led changes

An example of the implementation of digitalization solutions from Siemens can be seen in the case of pharma major Cipla Ltd’s Kurkumbh factory.

Cipla needed a robust and flexible distributed control system to dispense and manage solvents for the manufacture of its APIs (active pharmaceutical ingredients used in many medicines). As part of the project, Siemens partnered with Cipla to install the DCS-SIMATIC PCS 7 control system and migrate from batch manufacturing to continuous manufacturing. By establishing the first ever flow Chemistry based API production system in India, Siemens has helped Cipla in significantly lowering floor space, time, wastage, energy and utility costs. This has also improved safety and product quality.

In yet another example, technology provided by Siemens helped a cement plant maximise its production capacity. Wonder Cement, a greenfield project set up by RK Marbles in Rajasthan, needed an automated system to improve productivity. Siemens’ solution called CEMAT used actual plant data to make precise predictions for quality parameters which were previously manually entered by operators. As a result, production efficiency was increased and operators were also freed up to work on other critical tasks. Additionally, emissions and energy consumption were lowered – a significant achievement for a typically energy intensive cement plant.

In the case of automobile major, Mahindra & Mahindra, Siemens’ involvement involved digitalizing the whole product development system. Siemens has partnered with the manufacturer to provide a holistic solution across the entire value chain, from design and planning to engineering and execution. This includes design and software solutions for Product Lifecycle Management, Siemens Technology for Powertrain (STP) and Integrated Automation. For Powertrain, the solutions include SINUMERIK, SINAMICS, SIMOTICS and SIMATIC controls and drives, besides CNC and PLC-controlled machines linked via the Profinet interface.

The above solutions helped the company puts its entire product lifecycle on a digital platform. This has led to multi-fold benefits – better time optimization, higher productivity, improved vehicle performance and quicker response to market requirements.

Siemens is using its global expertise to guide Indian industries through their digital transformation. With the right technologies in place, India can see a significant improvement in design and engineering, cutting product development time by as much as 30%. Besides, digital technologies driven by ‘Ingenuity for Life’ can help Indian manufacturers achieve energy efficiency and ensure variety and flexibility in their product offerings while maintaining quality.


The above examples of successful implementation of digitalization are just some of the examples of ‘Ingenuity for Life’ in action. To learn more about Siemens’ push to digitalize India’s manufacturing sector, see here.

This article was produced on behalf of Siemens by the marketing team and not by the editorial staff.