Stringing notes of new norms
Finding the proverbial wind beneath their wings, six female artistes tune into the lyrics of liberty while playing an instrument that is considered a male bastion, writes Vaishali Vijaykumar
With the seevali (mouthpiece) of nadaswaram pressed between her lips, TV Vijayalakshmi renders the mellifluous notes of Amritavarshini — a ragam that is known to make the rain clouds burst in joy. The artiste then seamlessly improvises the ragam and alapanas with an effortless control over her breath. She’s one among the nine female nadaswaram artistes, who was featured in Parivadini’s nine-day Nava Shakti concert series on their YouTube channel.
Emphasising the significance behind the virtual series, Lalitha Ram of Parivadini shares, “The series is a conscious effort to celebrate and bring female artistes in the field under the spotlight. Since nadaswaram is known predominantly for its male representation, we wanted to break that image and popularise this art form where women can flourish too.
The hope is that if we consciously keep curating such events, we break stereotypes, increase female representation and visibility in these professions that are often considered male-dominated.” Parivadini hosted a similar concert series last Navaratri where artistes were asked to record their performances and premiered them on its official YouTube channel. It was during this time when they learnt that there was a sizable population of female nadaswaram artistes in the state, mostly unsung, says Lalitha.
TK Maheshwari, Thirumanur
Every day is a new lesson. Every concert is a new experience. And, you always have to put in extra effort to prove your calibre in a male-dominated space,” says TK Maheshwari, who has been playing the nadaswaram for the past 20 years. “Men dedicate all their time to mastering the instrument but that’s not the case with us. This is one instrument that demands all your attention if you have to excel, and rigorous practice sessions every day,” she shares.
At a time when there are greater risks of losing a glorious instrument, Maheshwari suggests, “To preserve the legacy of any instrument, it has to be in the right hands. There’s a whole community dedicating its life to earn a livelihood out of it. There’s a sizable population of women artistes too. If we do not support them now, then the situation can get grave,” she cautions. Playing nadaswaram has given satisfaction and purpose in life, says Maheshwari. “Both my sons play the nadaswaram. I want to teach this craft to as many girl children as possible. There was a point when family responsibilities took over my passion but I remained undeterred. We have a bigger responsibility,” she recounts.
S Shanthi, Thiruvannamalai
Practice, perseverance and patience are ingredients for S Shanthi’s success recipe. “Not everybody can play the nadaswaram. I learnt the instrument from my grandfather at the age of six. After my wedding, when I started playing with my husband, I realised that we came from different schools of music. I had to unlearn and relearn many nuances. We won the Kalaimamani as a couple in 2019,” says Shanthi. Performing before Mahaperiyava is one of her memorable moments. “It’s common for women to accompany their husbands or fathers. I’d love to see more solo concerts where a woman can bask in just her talent. Most of us look up to Madurai Ponnuthayi amma and Padma Shri Kaleeshabi Mahaboob for inspiration. If they can, we can,” she shares. Women must lift each other, believes Shanthi. “Nobody is self-made. We can reach great heights with support from family, spouse and equal opportunities.
Compared to men, women take a lot of breaks at different phases in life. While that’s inevitable, there’s always an option to follow one’s dreams.” If the existing gaps weren’t enough, Shanthi and her ilk faced the biggest blows during the pandemic. “When things were fine, we were repeatedly invited to perform at special functions because families considered us lucky. We knew what our patrons wanted. Some enjoyed keerthanai and some liked old songs. Your efficiency as a player reflects in how well you play to their expectations. We’re hopeful that such good times will be back soon.”
S Santhanalakshmi, Chettikulam
SSanthanalakshmi vividly remembers Thangammal Paramasivam, a clarinet player, performing alongside her father. Drawing inspiration from her, she decided to pursue nadaswaram full-time. “My father had four daughters and we wanted to carry forward his legacy. He started teaching me and my sister half-heartedly because we were insistent. I’ve been playing since class eight. Unlike our times, a lot of institutions offering nadaswaram courses have mushroomed in recent years,” she shares.
Recounting one of her life-changing experiences, she says, “I remember playing at a temple procession in Thanjavur and it’s not easy. We have to play for hours together and your mouth hurts. That taught me that I can overcome all kinds of challenges. You need a good lung capacity and energy to produce sound in a sustained manner; that comes with practice. So, anybody can play the instrument,” she assures. Santhanalakshmi and her husband have been conducting classes for children. With more female nadaswaram teachers at institutions, she believes that more girl children will step forward to learn. “Depending on experience and popularity, there are A-grade and B-grade artistes. Everybody has to be respected and given equal chances or it could lead to frustration,” she sums up.
TV Vijayalakshmi, Chidambaram
Nadaswaram is also called mangala vadyam (auspicious instrument). Compared to western instruments, this will always stand out for its charm. It continues to enjoy the status of being played at temples, traditional functions in south Indian households and weddings,” says TK Vijayalakshmi. The artiste has been playing the instrument since class eight. After learning the basics from her father, she trained under Injikudi Subramanian at Government Arts College, Thiruvarur. “I sacrificed more after motherhood. My practice hours came down and there was a break from playing. But I bounced back within a few years with support from family and husband.
We conduct classes for aspiring students and it’s nice to see so many opt for nadaswaram amid veena, flute and other classical instruments. I strongly believe that nadaswaram can be pursued as a full-time career. It’s like any other job for women,” she offers. Despite the pandemic and its repercussions, Vijayalakshmi is optimistic that the instrument will continue to hold its ground. “Personally, playing the instrument has been peaceful for me. With my father, I used to enjoy keerthanais; I admire the way my husband plays devaram. It took me years to gain confidence to play amid and alongside men but now there’s no looking back. All those people, who once looked down upon women playing the instrument, are now looking up to them,” she says.
TV Sankaree, Tiruchy
Hailing from a family of nadaswaram vidwans, TV Sankaree began playing the nadaswaram at the age of eight, under the tutelage of her father. “From then to now, not much has changed for female artistes. Women were not allowed to learn the instrument. Even now, some temples restrict us from playing. But, the situation has improved as more girls are coming forward to learn the instrument,” notes Sankaree. Having toured around Tamil Nadu with her father, and husband, Sankaree’s experiences have sharpened her skill. “It’s empowering to carve a place for yourself.
But we need equal opportunities and pay. Good talents need to be nurtured and recognised,” she adds. The pandemic, if anything, has only worsened the situation for lesser-known artistes, she rues. “Advances for concerts had to be returned and all occasions were postponed. People took advantage of the grim reality and negotiated with us for lesser payments. Virtual platforms have been helpful, but for old-schoolers like us, it’s tough to adapt. Our goal is to preserve the dying instrument and pass it on to more women of the younger generation,” she shares.
B Bageshwari, Thiruvannamalai
Performing arts is like any other field. It’s tougher for women as they have to juggle family and passion. Yet, we find our way out and that’s only because of the respect we have for the instrument,” says
B Bageshwari, who comes from several generations of nadaswaram players. “I completed my arangetram when I was eight and had the opportunity to perform in front of acclaimed artistes. It’s their blessings and appreciation that has brought me this far in life,” she says. Ask if the instrument enjoys the same status today and she laments, “We need more prime slots during Margazhi concerts.
At many functions, people have started playing recorded versions but nothing comes close to a live performance.” Adding to their misery, the pandemic has robbed them of chances to perform at concerts and temple festivals. Even then, entertaining patrons was their priority, and they performed virtually. “I was the only female student when I was pursuing BA Music from Madras University. It’s heartwarming to see so many youngsters show interest. Despite the ups and downs, the instrument is gaining importance and that’s hopeful. Some artistes are gaining opportunities in films. That can take the instrument to a wider audience,” she says.