The nadaswaram (sometimes spelt nadhaswaram, and also called nagaswaram) is one of the most popular classical (Carnatic style) instruments of South India and acclaimed as the world's loudest non-brass acoustic instrument. It is similar to the North Indian wind instrument shehnai (shahnai), but larger in size. It has a hardwood body and a large flaring bell made of wood or metal.
In India the nadaswaram is considered to be very auspicious, and it is the key instrument which is played in almost all South Indian temple festivals and weddings. It is part of the family of instruments known as a Mangala Vadya (auspicious instrument). The instrument is often played in pairs, and accompanied by a sruti (drone factor) wind instrument called othu and a pair of drums called thavil or mattalam.
The nadaswaram contains three parts namely, kuzhal, thimiru, and anasu. Traditionally the body of the nagaswaram is made out of a forest tree called aachaa.
The nadaswaram is a double reed instrument with a conical bore which gradually enlarges toward the lower end and made of a type of ebony. The top portion has a metal staple (called "Mel Anaichu") into which is inserted a small metallic cylinder (called "Kendai") which carries the mouthpiece made of reed. Besides spare reeds, a small ivory or horn needle is attached to the Nagaswaram. This needle is used to clear the mouthpiece of saliva particles and allows free passage of air. A metallic bell (called "Keezh anaichu") decorates the bottom.
The Nagaswaram has seven finger-holes. There are five additional holes drilled at the bottom which are used as controllers. The instrument has a range of two and a half octaves like the flute. The system of fingering is similar to that of the flute. But unlike the flute, where semi and quarter tones are produced by the partial opening and closing of the finger holes, in the Nagaswaram they are produced by adjusting the pressure and strength of the air-flow into the pipe. Hence it is a very exacting instrument to play. Also, due to its intense volume and strength it is basically an outdoor instrument and much more suited for open spaces than for closed indoor concerts. Some of the greatest early exponents of the nadaswaram include Thiruvavadudurai Rajaratnam Pillai and Sangita Kalanidhi Thiruvizhimizhalai Subramaniya Pillai. In more recent times the maestros Namagiripettai Krishnan, late Karukurichi Arunachalam, late Sheik Chinna Moulana and Thiruvarur S Latchappa Pillai are well known names.
U.S. composers such as Lewis Spratlan and Carl Stone have expressed admiration for the nadaswaram, and a few jazz musicians have taken up the instrument: Charlie Mariano(b. 1923) is one of the few non-Indians able to play the instrument well, having studied it while living in India. Tim Price, a student of Charlie Mariano at Berklee College of Music, Boston, also plays the nadaswaram. The German saxophonist Roland Schaeffer also plays it, having studied from 1981 to 1985 with Vidwan Karuppiah Pillai. Vinny Golia, J.D. Parran, William Parker and William Skelton have recorded with the instrument. Bill Skelton was a bassoon player, who was one of the earliest Americans to fall in love with Carnatic music. He visited Chennai to study this musical form and naturally took up the double-reed instrument associated with it, namely nadaswaram for his early music studies. He learnt to play the stringed instrument Veena from the famed Chennai musician and musicologist S. Ramanathan. He has been visiting Chennai regularly along with his wife Mary Lou and different batches of his students at Colgate University both to train them in Carnatic music practice and appreciation. The month of December in which the music halls of Chennai have top performances every day was a favourite time of the year for the visits.
This dearly loved Professor passed away in Hamilton, New York on Wednesday this week and you can read an affectionate obituary article from Geetha Bennett, his long time friend and associate and one of Professor Ramanathan's daughters. Geetha plays the Veena and mentions in her article Professor Skelton's encouragement to her to play selections from a Russian music composition on this instrument in a solo performance with the Colgate University orchestra.
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