A calendar that documents the legacy of Chennai’s nagaswaram and thavil players

Nagaswaram player M.K. Swaminathan. Photo: Special Arrangement

Nagaswaram player M.K. Swaminathan. Photo: Special Arrangement

While the erstwhile composite Thanjavur district, now divided into many districts, according to late vocalist Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer remained a “forest of nagaswaram and thavil players”, Chennai, too, produced many talents in this field.

While nagaswaram and thavil players of Thanjavur belong to the Isai Vellalar community, the Chennai musicians are from the Maruthuvar community. A calendar for 2024 produced by Parivadini — an organisation committed to promotion of nagaswaram and thavil — highlights the sociological aspect of music. It has featured 12 nagaswaram and thavil players from Chennai.

Lalitharam, founder, Parivadini, said the objective of the table-calendar was to document the legacy of nagaswaram and thavil artistes based out of Madras (Chennai). He recalled musicologist P. Sambamoorthy, who had written about nagaswaram artistes Krishnan and Kuppan at the Krishnan Temple in Pavazhakaara Street in 1906 for a prize of a nagaswaram studded with gems. These artistes, predominantly from the Maruthuvar community, have been in this vocation for several generations.

Featured in the calendar are nagaswaram players P.I. Natesa Pillai, P.N. Govindasami, Mambalam K. Swaminathan, Saidapet Natarajan, Teynampet P.K. Madurai, V.N. Balasubramaniam and Nagappa, and thavil players Saidapet M. Subramaniam, C.P. Pakkirisami, K.K. Vadivel, S.V. Vajrapani and T.A. Subramani.Of them, Vajrapani had a brief stint as thavil player of Rajarathinam Pillai’s troupe.

“The Tamil barber musicians in Madras, known as Maruttuvar, began to have direct contact with visiting Isai Velalar musicians at least by the last decades of the 19th Century as the city grew into a metropolitan centre that lavishly patronised not only Karnatak music, but also Periya Melam music through temple festivals and privately endowed performances…,” writes Terada Yoshitaka in his book T.N. Rajarattinam Pillai: Charisma, Caste Rivalry and the Contested Past in South Indian Music.

Natesa Pillai, according to the calendar, lived in Muthialpet and was one of the early celebrity nagaswaram players of Madras. After listening to him play at a temple festival, Thiruvavaduthurai Rajarathinam Pillai declared, “While I am the nagaswara chakravarthi of the world, you are the nagaswara chakravarthi of Madras”.

“For these Maruttuvar musicians, Rajarattinam Pillai’s extended stays in and eventual migration to Madras provided them opportunities to have contact with him, both as listeners and accompanists,” says Tereda. P.N. Govindasami, a top-ranked artiste of Madras, was known for his mellifluous and detailed exposition of ragas. Mambalam K. Swaminathan, father of M.K.S. Siva and M.K.S. Natarajan, was the second nagaswaram player of Rajarathinam Pillai when he performed at the 60th birthday of Maharajapuram Viswanatha Iyer. This speaks volumes about his popularity, and the tonal quality of his instrument.

Nagaswaram player Natarajan dominated the film world and worked with music directors such as K.V. Mahadevan and M.S. Viswanathan. He was the first nagaswaram artiste to demand a four-digit remuneration for a recording session and the first Madras nagaswaram artiste to own a car.

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