Wedding Music In South India – Nadaswaram & Thavil

Wedding music
Via Natesh Ramasamy on Flickr

The granddaddies of traditional Indian wedding music!

Wedding music in India is dominated by two instruments that always manage to make their presence heard. While the Shehnai dominates the wedding music scene in North India, the Nadaswaram and Thavil are the dynamic duo that usher in the auspicious occasions in South India. In fact, the Shehnai was replaced by Nadaswaram at the wedding of Aishwarya Rai and Abhishek Bachchan to give the wedding a southern flavour!

For those who are wondering what a Nadaswaram and Thavil are, here is a video that will leave you in splits.

No South Indian wedding is complete without the boisterous and the exuberant notes and beats from the Nadaswaram and the Thavil. The tradition of using these instruments for weddings as well as other festivals or ceremonies goes back to several centuries.

All about Nadaswaram

Wedding music
Via Otrajesh on Wikipedia

If I were to say, “you will know it when the Nadaswaram is playing”, I am not exaggerating. The Nadaswaram is the world’s loudest non-brass acoustic wind instrument! Here are some interesting tidbits about Nadaswaram.

1. Nada means a pleasing sound and swaram means note. Hence the name Nadaswaram. There is another school of thought pertaining to the name of this instrument and the same instrument is also referred to as Nagaswaram.

2. Nadaswaram is considered to be one among the managala vadyam or auspicious instruments that get played for temple festivities and other important events.

3. The Silappathikaram, considered as one of the epics of Tamil Literatures was penned in about 3rd Century CE. This epic refers to an instrument called Vangiyam that resembles the Nadaswaram.

4. Narasingapettai in Tamil Nadu is well known for its master Nadaswaram craftsmen. Like many other traditional professions, the Nadaswaram makers of Narasingapettai are on their last lap as the younger generation is no longer interested in pursuing an ancient livelihood.

5. Here is how the different parts of Nadaswaram come together. 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 the free passage of air. A metallic bell (called “Keezh anaichu“) decorates the bottom.

6. 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.

All about Thavil

Wedding music
Via Kota Shivaranjan on Flickr

The Thavil is a percussion instrument and forms a key accompaniment for Nadaswaram. According to Wikipedia, The thavil consists of a cylindrical shell hollowed out of a solid block of jackfruit wood. Layers of animal skin (water buffalo on the right, goat on the left) are stretched across the two sides of the shell using hemp hoops attached to the shell. The right face of the instrument has a larger diameter than the left side, and the right drum head is stretched very tightly, while the left drum head is kept loose to allow pitch bending.

Here are some interesting facts about Thavil.

1. Different parts of the Thavil are made in different towns and villages. The jackfruit drum comes from Panruti in Cuddalore, synonymous with jackfruit groves.

2. The steel rings (valai) made of iron pipes, for attaching the leather is made at Thiruvaiyaru Valangaiman and Kattumannarkoil, the birthplace of Vaishnava Acharya Nadhamunigal.

3. Steel belts for fixing the valanthalai (right side) and thoppi (left side) on the drum and the connecting rod in the middle of the drum are manufactured at Mayiladuthurai.

4. The Thavil artist uses fingers as well as a stick to play the instrument. The right head is played on with the right palm, wrist, and fingers. The player usually wears hard rings (also called caps) on all fingers of right hand. They are made of rice flour or Maida flour called ‘Koodu’ to give a deeper effect and volume. The left head is played on by using a short, thick stick made of the portia tree (Poovarasam).
5. A key part of traditional south Indian wedding music is the Ketti melam. This special tune is played at the exact moment the bridegroom ties the thali on the bride. It is believed that the ketti melam wards of evil sounds. The Thavil plays a key role in making sure you don’t hear anything else when the ketti melam is played.

Looking ahead

Wedding music
Via Niranjan Patil

Nadaswaram and Thavil have had a glorious past and continues to be the wedding music of choice in all South Indian marriages. Nadaswaram and Thavil have gone beyond just being wedding music as they are also integral to temple festivals and other occasions. Unlike the dwindling brass bands in North India, traditional South Indian wedding music has found patronage even among the new generation of young Indians.

Stalwarts like Thiruvengadu Subramania Pillai, TN Rajarathinam Pillai, Thiruvuzhimizhalai Subramanya Pillai, Karaikurichi Arunachalam, and Sheik Chinna Moulana have brought in the much-needed respectability to the artists. However, it is to be seen if we will continue to see young artists taking up Nadaswaram and Thavil by choice.

Interestingly, there is no dearth of educational institutions where one can learn the art of playing Nadaswaram and Thavil. In Tamil Nadu, there are over 20 Government run schools and several other institutions that teach this art form. However, the students that enrol in these schools come in because they couldn’t find admission in other streams of education!

That’s not the only issue. The Nadaswaram and the Thavil are incredibly tough instruments to play. In order to master these instrument, you will need to spend years practicing under the guidance of an expert artist. Naturally, only the passionate students or those who belong to a family of musicians have the passion, drive, and the guidance they need to become an artist.

No matter what the challenges are in playing these instruments, I believe the South Indian wedding music will continue to be dominated by Nadaswaram and Thavil for decades to come.

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