Documentary seeks to record vanishing nagaswaram heritage of Vaishnavite temples

Numerous distinct and beautiful traditions are difficult to chronicle and preserve

While sabhas in Chennai and other cities have offered a much-needed platform for classical music and dance after feudal social structures disintegrated, many traditions in music that are unique to temple rituals are either no longer followed, or have disappeared with time.

Parivadini, a charitable organisation for the arts, which earlier documented the unique nagaswaram traditions of the Chidambaram Nataraja temple, is now undertaking a similar effort for Vaishnavite temples.

“We have completed the shooting, which was done at the Veeranarayana Perumal temple in Kattumannarkoil,” Parivadini’s founder Lalitha Ram said.

Nagaswaram player Achalpuram Chinnathambi Pillai, now weakened by age (he is nearing 90), is probably the only musician familiar with the distinct musical traditions of Vaishnavite temples. Mr. Ram persuaded him to play for the project.

Even though both Saivite and Vaishnavite temples have a lot in common when it comes to musical heritage, they also have unique arrangements of their own, which can differ from temple to temple. In Vaishnavite temples, for example, the Mallari (rendered when the deity is taken in a procession) is played with several variations, when compared with a performance of it at a Saivite temple. Vaishnavite temples also have a Theertha Mallari (played during the deity’s abishekam ritual), Thaligai Mallari (played when food is taken from the temple kitchen) and Ther Mallari (performed during the car festival). “Pavithrotsavam, in which the sacred thread of the main deity is changed, is followed only in Vaishnavite temples. The Saveri Raga is performed at this occasion, which is followed by a pallavi. The Ragamalika is performed when the deity climbs the steps of the temple,” said Mr. Ram.

Vanished words

Mr. Ram said the documentary has recorded the Maalai Maatral tradition as it was followed in Chidambaram Govindraja Perumal temple.

“Ahiri is handled in a different way and 11 songs are included for the Maalai Maatral (ritual of exchanging garlands),” said musicologist B.M. Sundaram, who oversaw the recording. The words of the songs no longer exist, but nagaswaram artistes play what they learnt from their masters.

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