Narasinganpettai nagaswaram: The classical wind musical instrument which now has a GI tag

The nagaswaram, the classical wind musical instrument made by the craftsmen of Narasinganpettai, has been awarded the Geographical Indication (GI) label.

Narasinganpettai, a small village 15 km from Kumbakonam in Tanjore district, has traditional nagaswaram makers. Even though nagaswarams are made in many other parts of the state, only Barinagaswaram of Narasinganpettai makes Madhyamam Swara commonly.

From royal courts and temples to weddings and festivals, this classic instrument is part of every auspicious event and artists have preserved the art of nagaswaram for over 300 years.

The story of Narasinganpettai nagaswaram

Before the Barinagaswaram, musicians used the ‘timiri nagaswaram’. In the timiri nagaswaram, the musicians find it difficult to play the madhyamam swara.

It was the legendary nagaswaram maestro TN Rajarathinam Pillai who wanted Narasinganpettai nagaswaram maker Ranganatha Aachari to look into this matter. Ranganathan then went to Srirangam to learn the techniques and then came up with six modified nagaswarams. TNR fell in love with it and played these modified nagaswarams until the end.

According to the book Nine Rupees An Hour, even before the establishment of the Barinagaswaram, TNRajarathinam Pillai performed the Shanmugapriya ragam on Narasinganpettai Nagaswaram in front of Jawaharlal Nehru and other leaders on August 15, 1947 in Delhi.

Sathish Selvaraj, the fifth generation nagaswaram craftsman in his family, says the tradition was started by Govindasamy, and future generations – Govindasamy’s son Narayanasamy, grandson Ranganathan and great-grandson Selvaraj – pursued her. Now Selvaraj’s two sons – Sathish and Prakash – are actively involved in handcrafting nagaswarams.

Selvaraj and Sathish doing Nagaswaram. (Photo: special arrangement)

“Do you know the song Nalandana by Thillana Mohanambal? In this song they used bari nagaswaram which was made by my grandfather. In Timiri nagaswaram, “nadham” never mixed with the human voice. Everything changed after this modification, you know. I’m really proud of my grandfather,” says Sathish Selvaraj.

“It is sad to see that the number of luthiers is diminishing in the region where once the work of making classical instruments was flourishing and where famous maestros waited in front of our “pattarais” (workshops). Until today, we make the nagaswaram by hand for two reasons. Reason: Craftsmen used to work with my dad and shared all the ups and downs together. If we modernize the techniques, they would lose their livelihood. Secondly, the company “NR Nagaswaram” is named after its fine handmade products. We don’t want to destroy that name,” Sathish added.

Prakash learned all the techniques from his father while his older brother Sathish stayed away from nagaswaram and wanted to earn his living in a different field. But the sudden disappearance of their father forced him to take care of their family business for the immense love he has for his father.

Asked about profit from nagaswaram, Sathish replied, “There is no profit, I can say. Getting money for our working hours is also impossible.

“In our investment, the Aachamaram or Indian blackwood and rain tree wood cost the maximum. We cannot estimate how many nagaswarams can be made with the items we purchase. Indian blackwood must have more 80 to 100 years old so that the saliva collected inside the instrument will not affect the nagaswaram and tonal quality.If the inside of the wood is cracked, we can’t use it.We also have to pay our associates. My brother and I work out of passion but must respect the work of the workers and pay them well. To some extent, we can get a decent profit at the beginning of the Margazhi season. The rest of the year is a situation disastrous for manufacturers,” he said.

During Margazhi season, each nagaswaram costs around 7,000 to 8,000 rupees.

The process of making Narasinganpettai nagaswaram

Sathish describes the process of making the classical instrument. Narasinganpettai nagaswaram is 2 to 2.5 feet long and has three parts. The long cylindrical block is composed of Aachaamaram. The wood comes from the Karaikudi, Vellore, Thiruvannamalai of Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. The upper end of the block measures 1.75 inches, into which the sevaali reed, a handmade mouthpiece, is inserted. Seevaali are made from Korukkai thattai naanal, a type of reed that grows in the Cauvery River. The bottom of the block measures 2.25 to 2.5 inches. The megaphone, like the Anasu part, made from the rain tree, is attached to the lower part of the block.

Reed mouthpiece. (To express)

According to Sathish and other traditional nagaswaram craftsmen, Indian blackwood is salvaged from demolished bungalows and palatial houses in the Chettinad region. If there are no intermediaries, they pay 40,000 to 50,000 rupees for a big pillar. But it costs more when intermediaries are involved in the purchase.

“I don’t know if there is a way to increase the premium price of Nagaswarams through this GI label announcement. But it still makes me happy that the unique methods we use in making nagaswaram have been recognized,” says Gunasekharan, another craftsman from Narasinganpettai.

“Few families only do Nagaswaram and the men in my age group teach the methods to the younger ones. I couldn’t do that since I have two daughters. Both are married and their husbands have no interest in finding out. People from other local villages also make nagaswaram but for the best and clear Madhyamam Swara, musicians should come and buy the instrument here only,” Gunasekharan said.

Anasu. (To express)

“I have spent over 20 years of my life researching and facilitating the GI labeling process for unique Tamil Nadu products. This is the 27th product I have worked with,” says P Sanjay Gandhi, Nodal Officer of State GI Registered Products.

“In all the southern states, musicians play the same kind of instruments. Thus, the prevalence of duplicates is also common. Getting a GI for Narasinganpettai nagaswaram will greatly reduce the circulation of duplicates which can help mainstream manufacturers make decent profits for their fine products and brand value will also increase. Once people start to understand the importance of these products, they tend to spend more on them,” he said.

Gandhi suggested that to increase production, the HR&CE department of Tamil Nadu can request major temples in the state to purchase Narasinganpettai nagaswarams for auspicious play during poojas, adding that the department can also sponsor temples for buy one.

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