Chennai and Tamil Nadu
‘I fell in love with the nadham’
Unlike in a flute, in nagaswaram it is by sheer breath control that one has to produce the notes. This requires rigorous practice not just in the formative years but, forever.
Often you stumble across a nagaswara vidwan only to find him hailing from some hamlet that belongs to Thanjavur district. Mambalam M.K.S.Siva, or Mambalam Siva as he is known, is an exception. Having grown up entirely in Chennai, Siva who has worked hard to achieve his childhood dream of making it big in nagaswaram, believes that he still has a long way to go. A man of few words, Siva goes down memory lane at dawn, on Sunday last, at the Sri Kapaleeswarar Temple, Mylapore…
Where it started...
My father Mambalam M.K.Swaminathan and his ancestors were nagaswaram players from Arcot district, Mel Visharam to be exact. He had learnt from Choolai Duraiswamy and Kalakkad Ramanarayana Bhagavathar. Among the six of us brothers, four took to nagaswaram while the other two opted for the thavil. Our father was our first Guru. I was 10 years old when I had my first lessons.
Later I continued my classes with Kalakkad Ramanarayana Bhagavathar. Being in the city did not distract me, for I had made up my mind to become a professional nagaswaram player. My father’s playing was full of suswara and I was mesmerised by its sound. He wanted me to pursue higher education. Yet the nagaswaram lessons continued.
Later, I completed my school final and thereafter began the pursuit of my calling. I virtually fell in love with the nadham emanating from the instrument. Unlike in a flute, it is by sheer breath control that one has to produce the notes. This requires rigorous practice not just in the formative years but, forever. And that has been my mission. I benefited a lot from Kalakkad’s classes.
Teaming up with others…
I had a long association with Kanyakumari as a permanent member of her Vadya Lahari group which comprised violin, veena and nagaswaram. It was the first of its kind and people liked this unique combination. The encouragement we got from the organisers was a morale booster. It went on for about 25 years. I have accompanied Madurai T.N.Seshagopalan in his vocal concerts. It was a very interesting experience because he is known for his nagaswaram style of singing alapanas. Another novel attempt, a CD with Nithyashree Mahadevan, was also well received. I’ve performed with Vijayalakshmi Subramanian. Of course, when you accompany a vocalist, your approach should be a controlled one, for the instrument naturally has a loud volume and can easily drown the voice of the vocalist. The balancing act of keeping your volume under control is quite a challenge. Can you believe that I joined Pt. Visweswaran in his santoor concert? It was again an equally daunting task.
Of my two sons one is into business. The other is already playing with me and thus I’ve ensured that the legacy continues. I also teach. Many of my disciples hail from Kerala, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and of course, from here too. Some of them are performing artists. William Sketton, for instance. A former Professor of Music at Colgate University in the U.S., he was my student for more than 20 years. Recently he turned eighty. Deteriorating health as a result of a surgery has prevented him from playing anymore.
Magudi and Nagaswaram…
I am currently ranked ‘A Top’ by All India Radio. Once during a concert for AIR in its studios, I played magudi as my concluding piece and it was about 8 p.m. The recording engineer became jittery and didn’t relish it one bit as the place was infested with snakes. I feel strongly that the magudi piece has a strange connection with snakes, for I have seen snakes darting towards the stage during several of my concerts in village temples only to be driven away by the audience. No exaggeration.
When vidwan Namagiripettai Krishnan fell ill, I was asked to play as his substitute at one of the festivals in Tirumala. Impressed, the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam made me their asthana vidwan. I owe it all to Namagiripettai. I deem it a great privilege playing during the sevas and festival time there. The experience is one of a kind. I am also the asthana vidwan of Kanchi Mutt. Sri Ramani Guruji has blessed me with a replica of a nagaswaram made of silver. To me it is an invaluable gift and I am a regular at all the festivals of his ashram. Yazhpanam University conferred on me ‘Nadhaswarawa Vidya Sironmani’ when I performed there. Temples have been of great support to us. I am also a regular at some of the temples in Kerala. Almost all of the leading thavil vidwans have accompanied me. I hold them all in great reverence. Frequent concert tours to various places abroad are also part of my agenda.
Nagaswaram is a very ancient instrument – the only one to be part of an auspicious event and at temple festivals. The Government should open nagaswara schools in districts where they don’t exist. A stipend would encourage candidates to enrol.
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Chennai and Tamil Nadu