By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Saturday, December 29, 2012

Hearing From The Hill-top

Talking about the spiritual élan created by the soulful music of South Indian woodpipes and drums in a Madras temple festival (Dec. 27), I couldn't resist tracing an essay I had written in 1986, describing a very similar musical experience in a Temple setting in New Delhi.
One of the thrills of writing on both Carnatic and Western music in a prestigious newspaper in the Capital of India was that I could consistently explain significant aspects of both South Indian and Western music systems and traditions, for the benefit of an international set of intelligent readers.  That's perhaps why, after so many years, they still seem to be worth circulating to an international set of Internet readers!

In the beginning I used to get so carried away by my unique status as 'Carnatic and Western music critic' in New Delhi that I would discuss contexts of both kinds in the same article even if they had no connection whatsoever.  But I soon found that it wasn't a very effective way of attracting better response from readers on either side, and gave up the experiment.  So let me just omit the second half of the following article here!

THE HINDU, New Delhi
14 Nov. 1986
Naagaswaram, trumpet and flugelhorn
October and November constitute the season when many events of devotional music and music-laced religious discourses are organized in the South Indian temple circles in Delhi. . .

In the first week of November came the celebrations associated with the Skanda Sashti festival at the Swami-Malai temple in South Delhi.  Among the musical programs. . . .  was a naagaswaram recital given by the Mambalam Brothers from Madras. . . .

The naagaswaram and thavil are extremely loud outdoor wind and percussion instruments, which are traditionally played in processions or in open-air venues on religious occasions and Hindu weddings all over South India. 

The thousands of exponents who play these auspicious instruments with remarkable skill in the temples and elsewhere are generally conservative in their orientation, and they make a very valuable contribution towards preserving the purity of the Carnatic music tradition.  Remaining by and large anonymous, these innumerable musicians are like the strong invisible roots of a magnificent tree.

Being specifically designed by our ancestors for the open air, the naagaswaram and thavil are not truly effective as modern concert instruments.  Some attempts have been made to concertize this music, but they have not succeeded widely , and very few concert artists have emerged in the scene.

When amplified by artificial means inside a concert hall, the sound of these powerful instruments does become extremely strident.  In a shamiana [spacious tent], with its roof and walls made of cloth or canvas, the effect may not be so negative;  but even in principle, the naagaswaram culture and amplification are quite incompatible.
The [event in question] was organized inside a decorative tent, with amplifying arrangements.  Moreover, there is something seriously wrong with the old set of microphones and loudspeakers currently in use in this temple. . . .  [and they were] malfunctioning . . . .

An electrician tinkered with the equipment for quite some time, but he couldn't locate the source of the trouble.  The situation would have improved if the sound system had simply been switched off, but this wasn't done.    Unable to appreciate or even withstand the music purveyed in such a jarring manner, some of us went out and climbed up the small adjoining hill and sat on the parapets of the Swaminatha Shrine, under a clear sky adorned by sparkling stars and a six-day-old moon. 

Somehow distance and elevation seemed to dissolve the impurities in the sound, and wonderful music wafted from the shamiana below to the listeners on the hill.  Possessing the authentic classic quality which generally characterizes naagaswaram recitals, the music enabled one to meditate deeply and experience a spiritual thrill.

After a while an idol of Lord Swaminatha was brought up in a slow procession to the hill-top;  and the musicians went ahead of it and performed in the open air, which was their natural setting.  The procession was halted for some time mid-way up the hill, and the worshipful mood was greatly enhanced by the mellifluous music which flowed from the twin naagaswarams.  It seemed as if one had almost gone on a pilgrimage to some ancient village temple in South India! . . .

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