Editor's note: The Chembur Fine Arts Society, one of the foremost cultural organisations in Mumbai, is going places with its innovative and pioneering efforts in promoting and propagating Indian music and dance. The recent thematic annual conferences on Carnatic music have certainly caught the imagination of the music-loving public. The last few years have witnessed detailed discussions and demonstrations on the Musical instruments of Carnatic music. The first conference, on String instruments, was held in February 1999. The conferences in 2000 and 2001 covered Wind instruments and Percussion instruments respectively. Each conference featured top-notch exponents of the respective instruments.

Carnatica already featured the papers from the String instruments conference (Click here to read those articles). Now, we move on to the papers presented in the Wind Instruments conference, held in 2001.


Wind Instruments - 2000


Nadaswaram - The Mangala Vadyam

By P N Sethuraman

Nadaswaram, is considered to be one of the most ancient and unique musical instruments of Tamilnadu. It would be appropriate to call this instrument a rare combination of music and divinity. The history and current perspective of the instrument forms the fundamental basis of this presentation.

Our predecessors considered temples as the abode of peace and sanctity. This system of holding the temples as the centre stage of our culture has prevailed for the last several centuries. Temples have nurtured several arts forms, the important ones being music and dance. Both these formed the basic essence of the bhakti tradition. The credit for such a rich tradition has to be given to the Azhwars and Nayanmars. The Tamil language and the patronage for music were interlinked during the ancient period. The temples in Tamilnadu have been the main inspiration and source of the bhakti tradition. Thus music played a special role as a medium for prayer. Musical celebrations were very popular and Nadaswaram acquired a special status in such presentations. Everyone in the temple precincts and the villages relished the music emanating from Nadaswaram. Thus this instrument became an integral part of temple celebrations throughout south India.

History of Nadaswaram

Mankind learnt to produce sounds from "shankh", the conch. Thereafter the horns of ox and bull were selected and holes were made into these and were used to produce musical sounds. Then bamboos and metals were used. Nadaswaram and other instruments like Ottu, Shehnai, Makuti etc., are the culmination of such efforts.

Silapadikaram refers to an instrument called "vangiyam". The structure of this instrument matches that of Nadaswaram. Since there are seven holes played with seven fingers this was also called as "Ezhil".

The making of Nadaswaram:

Bamboo, sandalwood tree, copper-brass alloy, wood of "cherungali" and "karungali" trees and ivory are used to make Nadaswaram. It was generally believed that only the wood of the cherungali tree must be used and the age of the tree must be at least 42 years. To identify the age of the tree an ingenious method was used. A small portion of the bark, if held against a lamp should burn continuously. If it blackens without burning, it is believed that the tree is not of sufficient age.

Each part of the Nadaswaram is related to a deity. The bottom circle to Surya, the Sun God, the upper hole to Goddess Sakti, the inner holes to Lord Vishnu, the body to Lord Brahma, and the seven holes to seven mothers. The music emanating is related to Lord Siva. Such a Nadaswaram is also called "Periya Melam" and "Rajavadyam".

The length of the present day Nadaswaram is much longer that what it used to be earlier. In olden days they were smaller in length and can be compared to the present day Timiri Nadaswaram, and had a higher base pitch. Sri Ponnuswamy Pillai was the first one to lengthen the Nadaswaram and to use a lower base pitch due to better sound production and appeal to the audience. The wooden Nadaswaram was able to score over metallic Nadaswarams made of silver, sometimes even gold, or other alloys. The present day Nadaswaram is 34 1/2 inches long and has a base pitch of 'D' or 2 kattai. The tonal quality of this is very appealing and attractive. The Timiri Nadaswaram was normally 18 1/4 inches long, and used base pitch of note B sharp or 7 kattai.

While the instrument is considered to be a Rajavadyam (royal instrument) and also a Mangalavadyam (auspicious instrument), there still is a debate whether it is "Nagaswaram" or "Nadaswaram". Since it is like a snake, some prefer to call it Nagaswaram; maybe the name Nadaswaram is more appropriate.

Special temple repertoire:

The present day practise of presenting Varnams, Keertanas, Javalis, Tillanas in Nadaswaram concerts is of recent origin, perhaps 60-70 years. Earlier, concerts at the temples were significantly different. Ragas were rendered with their full embellishments/laya structure and appropriate to the presiding deity. The Nitya Pooja or daily prayers normally comprised 6-8 rituals. Each time an appropriate raga was rendered on the Nadaswaram. This was the tradition and continues even today. The expert on Agama Sastra-s, Sri Ramaswamy Dikshitar, has laid down a detailed structure for Nadaswaram recitals at the temples.

The first pooja, Tiruvanandal, is performed between 5 am and 6 am to wake up the Gods. During such times, ragas like Bhoopalam, Bowli, Malayamarutam are played. During the 7 am Vila Pooja, ragas like Bilahari, Kedaram are rendered. Around 8 am ragas like Dhanyasi, Saveri, Aaaveri, and around 10 am ragas like Surati, Mukhari, Manirangu are played. At noon, during the Ucchikala Pooja Mukhari, Poornachandrika, Mandari and similar ragas are played. At 8 in the night during the Ardhajama pooja, ragas like Sankarabharanam, Bhairavi, Kambhoji, and at the 10 pm Palliarai pooja, ragas like Anandabhairavi, Neelambari are handled.

Thus it is a very scientifically laid down structure which was not only appealing but in keeping with the time of the day. The village folk could easily identify the time without clocks merely by listening to the ragas and the songs. Devotees would also be able to know which pooja was being performed. This evidences the fine-tuned prayer scheme prevalent in south Indian temples.

The playing of ragas is keeping with the temple rituals. Rendering of Mallari, Pancha Nadai, Ragam-Tanam-Pallavi etc during the procession of the deities were the traditions prevalent over many years. In recent times, Madurai Sri Ponnuswamy Pillai, Tiruveezhimalai brothers, Tiruppambaram brothers and Sri Karaikurichi Arunachalam contributed to the change in the concert format from the earlier raga-oriented approach to the present format of handling of Varnams, Kritis, Keertanas, Tillanas etc.

What is a Mallari?

Like the tradition during the temple rituals, there also prevailed a special pattern for temple processions, the most important being the rendition of Mallari. During processions, whenever Deeparadhana was performed, the Nadaswaram and the Tavil played as an ensemble - a rendering based on Tillana in raga Gambheeranata. This is called Mallari. This practise continues even today.

Each performance weaves a unique type of Mallari. During the Siva Tandava (the frezied dance of Lord Siva), his anklets gave rise to the Jati-s, "Tha dhi Tom Nam". This formed the basis of jatis for several percussion instruments like Mridangam. Further sounds emanating while striking the two hands on the mridangam produced "Dhim Dhim, Tham Tham". This forms the basis of the Mallari presentation, wherein the performer intertwines the Alarippu and the special jatis of the Tavil, "Kunda kundagu - Diruta Kundagu", to the raga Gambheeranata.

Subsequent to the detailed presentation of Gambheeranata, the other Ghana Pancha ragas, namely, Nata, Gowla, Arabhi, Varali and Sriragam are played. Todi is also rendered. The five types of Mallari are:

Teertha Mallari - while the Tirumanjanam is brought

Taligai Mallari - while the Naivedyam is brought

Kumbha Mallari - while giving the Poornakumbham

Taer Mallari - when the deity is taken up for procession

Purapattu Mallari - when the procession of the deity starts

One significant Mallari is Triputa tala Mallari, based on seven beats either as "Takita takadhimi" (3 + 4) or "Takadhimi takita" (4 + 3).

The Taer Mallari which has 5 beats is repeatedly handled on the procession days. No other Mallari is handled during the procession day.

Except a few like Triputa Mallari and Taer Mallari, Taligai and other Mallaris do not have any specific tala structure (beats). These would depend on the performer's creativity.


Playing rakti ragas is unique to the Nadaswaram tradition. Ragas like Kalyani, Kambhoji, Todi, Bhairavi are rendered with an exhaustive alapana in various tala structures. This is known as Rakti Melam. In South Indian music tradition, such a presentation is not found in other instruments or even in vocal music. About 60-70 years ago when Varnam, Kriti and Keertanas were not being handled, the highlight of a Nadaswaram concert was the RaktiMelam. Performers use to play for hours, or even days together, elaborating on each and every nuance of the raga.


Such is the greatness of this instrument! Every temple should nurture this instrument and restore the traditional practises. This will not only provide a livelihood for many artistes, but will also protect this endangered and ancient art. Schools imparting detailed training and coaching should be established in every city/town. Let us all unite and nurture this ancient temple art form.

Related links: Other articles from the Chembur Conference
                     Musical Expressions