On 17 September, Mysuru Dasara made its arrival felt with the golden howdah-carrying Abhimanyu leading the Gajapayana for the 2021 celebrations. Eight elephants led by Abhimanyu marked the beginning of the Gajapayana, their journey from the elephant camps to the Mysore Palace -- the heart of the traditional Dasara celebrations in Mysuru.
As the elephants embarked on their journey towards the Palace, an ensemble of saxophones was seen welcoming them, as part of the ceremony.
The arrival of sax goes back decades; the cultural queries surrounding it are old and new.
Karnataka – home of world renowned saxophone maestro, the late Vidwan Kadri Gopalnath, is also the music hub to saxophone players who have the sound and talent in them to define and redefine Indian soft power over practice and performance. They are trained to play the ragas and compositions; they can sustain an afternoon or evening slot kutcheri at the Margazhi music festival; they have the luxury of the “sophisticated” sound that the instrument brings, they can lend a breath of ‘Indianness’ to jazz. They are Indic -- with a touch of metal, if not wood.
That’s assuring, but what’s the saxophone doing in the nadhaswaram’s space? Such was the squeeze of expressions in posts on Twitter.
Isn’t an occasion such as this, the Gajapayana, a natural room for the nadhaswaram? It is. It is.
Is the sax, or has the sax replaced the nadhaswaram? It is mingling... It has not “replaced”. It shouldn’t.
Is the sax nibbling into or has the sax transgressed into the nadhaswaram’s space from the kutcheri to the rituals-ceremonies-celebrations of dharma?
Well, the nadhaswaram is also played at the concerts and kutcheri. Both have undergone structural modification for concert needs and now both are lingering along a cycle of celebration, dharma, music needs and people needs.
One space is exclusive to the nadhaswaram though – temple and temple life. Nadhaswaram– the nerve of ritual music, the sound of dharma breathing in music.
At the same time, the sax and thavil combination is no stranger to festivities and weddings celebrations in southern India.
Contemplations prompted by the scenes emerging from the Gajapayana in Mysuru are not unusual or unfamiliar. In other states in southern India, especially Tamil Nadu, the use of the saxophone in marriage festivities and perhaps outside temples has led people to wonder what the future of temple music, tradition and the livelihoods of communities playing the nadhaswaram, is.
The sound of Achalpuram Chinnathambi's breath into the nadhaswaram must stay, must reach wider and across temples. The utsava of devas in Shaiva and Vaishnava communities must constantly and endlessly churn out opportunities for the nadhaswaram-playing greats, their co-artistes and communities. The traditionalists will ensure that and must.
Yet, there is blending and merging of sound and influences taking place where the tallest traditionalists are not available – every time, or where the thought for tradition keeps shifting and “evolving”.
A video clip here shows artistes playing the nadhaswaram and welcoming the elephants into the palace to a traditional welcome "from the Jayamarthanda gate". In the same video clip artists playing the saxophone can be seen participating in the welcome.
For The Inner Space
The thavil and its playing holds both the sounds together and makes them meet the common point musically and culturally. Appears a meeting ground for two sounds, two wind instruments, two eras, two strains of a tradition where one strain is the stotra itself. The stotra -- the nadhaswaram.
The thavil holds both the nadhaswaram and the sax. And that says something very subtle about the space the sax has made for itself. I'll get to that later.
The nadhaswaram as the wind instrument is the sound and heritage that breathes out musical offerings pure -- the wordless ones -- to the devas. It interacts with the inner spaces of the devalaya, of festivals, rituals and celebrations of the temple life. It's for the inside of that sacred space where the deva and bhakta meet. It's the first sound that breaks into the tangible, putting ragas into form, birthing compositions into naad, cradling and nurturing temple life. The nadhaswaram is the first responder in sound and response to the various rituals at temples in southernIndia.
Nadhaswaram. Dhrupad. For devas. For devalaya.
The sound of the nadhaswaram, provides invocation -- the most honest -- emanating from the core of the human body through those twin reeds. Its sound cleanses the temple spaces. The sound of the nadhaswaram and compositions and ragas played on it keep musical pace with the rituals, clocks the rituals, lends them the naadopasana, adorns them in the ragas -- Abheri...Mallari...Mayamalavagowlai.. Hindolam...nadhanamakriya...
The sound of the nadhaswaram builds anticipation, to the ritual, to the action of the divine, of the archaka, it gives the thavil and tala the soulful companionship. It talks to the sacred flame. The nadhaswaram announces the presence of the devalaya. It annihilates fear (of the fear and fearsome), instils hope -- that temples and bhaktas will persist against and win against any threat in their continuation of faith, no matter how coercive the threat to that very continuation of faith.
A Message From The Shehnai
The nadhaswaram’s replacement with anything else from among wind instruments, especially a musical instrument that's as foreign in structure as fairly recent and new to tradition it is, in temples and in marriage ceremonies (a trend), indicates a shift. Though the saving grace is that musicality is not the victim here (ask this bhakta from northern India what value it has), tradition does seem to be at crossroads.
Tricky crossroads. Saxophone is not an outsider to classical music. However, that makes no argument for the sax in the inner sacred spaces.
When traditionalists hailing from southernIndia point that the musical instrument is/might be, inching further into the many territories of the nadhaswaram, denial is not the solution. Denial now would lead to an impact on communities that are preserving the nadhaswaram and will, over civilisational and cultural pressure-cooker tests.
Shehnai is almost washed away from the reti (sands) of Ganga. The nadhaswaram must turn away from that fate and direction and for that, we all must ensure that it is turned towards temples and temple life, not just in southernIndia, but beyond.
This author appreciates, with much enthusiasm, the coexistence and collaboration of the nadhaswaram and the sax, with a demarcation in place and consideration, that is. The inside versus outside demarcation in the role-play and spaces of these two musical instruments would help the artistes using both instruments flourish and survive.
The Cone Of Opportunity
I saw the winds of change blowing between 2007 and 2012. These were five years when a few prominent young performers of the sax were trying to push boundaries in the kutcheri scene and the Chennai wedding scene and trying to stay firm in their musical roots. That's a lot of sweat. Plus, the instrument costs are high, it demands much in practice, breathes in much, blows out less in terms of opportunities at the kutcheri scene, I was told in interactions with them. Survival -- financial -- and in the "industry" is a task that stands as a giant priority. Corporate shows and wedding-related ceremonies provide some financial padding as performing venues.
My interaction with Kadri Gopalnath ji himself made it clear that younger artistes would not be able to live the saxophone to the same musical demands, scale, popularity and intensity as he did. He shaped a legacy. He shared his vidya with the younger lot.
Where does the nadhaswaram figure in this transformation of spaces? In its right and rightful place -- the devalaya and its utsavas.
Nadhaswaram should lead the way for sax in its spaces, not the other way round.
The Ground For Traditional
Shehnai could not get its due in temples in northernIndia. There is no space or time to blame anyone for it. Gharanas have existed only at concert and festival dais when actually they could have given themselves the opportunity to do sangeet seva -- only to flourish and prosper outside the temples as performers.
Devas and devalaya are the first audience to ritualistic music. Bhaktas and temple life thrive when the music prasad flows out from the inner space of a temple. It never works the other way round. Temple-centric music goes on to feed people-centric music. Dilute that, or thin it, you will see the nadhaswaram stifled in the coming years.
Ritualistic music and the ragas are absent, cut, away, hushed, silenced, forgotten in temple life in northernIndia. Aaratis and mantraochcharan -- where they exist -- are restricted to small gatherings and, thankfully, "being revived". Shehnai and shehnai players, those from the temple seeking, temple celebrating, temple going communities, have not been consolidated for ensembles -- temple ensembles for devalayas and utsavas.
I have lived in Chennai. I have visited temples in Bengaluru. I have stopped at temples in Hyderabad, Mysore, Kolar, Tirumala, just to have the closest possible and distant idea of what being born in cultures where temple music thrives, is like.
The sound and the musical instrument that borrows the most from the divine as well as the human -- after the Saraswati Veena -- is the nadhaswaram. That's my own view.
The Layer Of Protection
Does the use of sax alongside nadhaswaram or a replacement (which as the video suggests is not replacement) indicate a new trend or indicates a departure from tradition?
It does indicate a new trend -- of improvisation. Nadhaswaram and saxophone seem to exist in a collaboration in the traditional welcome.
Is the use of saxophone capable of achieving any purpose -- say a purpose in art or celebration in the context of the Dasara celebrations in Mysore?
Certainly. It indicates that the inclusion of the sax is completing a full circle taken by the saxophone itself. It was "adopted" to celebrate the Carnatic tradition of music as envisioned by late Vidwan Kadri Gopalnath. It was the use of saxophone in an ensemble in Mysuru during the Dasara celebrations that led him to picking up the beautiful instrument. It's inclusion adds a new element, sound set, musical experience.
The nadhaswaram and the shehnai celebrate dharma in tradition. They have the power of the "inner" space and tradition. Sax is an entrant from a different bloodline and generation altogether. It's an outsider wanting to mingle. Let it work a wall of protection by building its own audience for the outside of temple life.
Let nadhaswaram lead and be in the inner space of temple life and the sax follow in the outer, to interact for Indian soft power internally and externally. The nadhaswaram breathes and protects the temple life. The saxophone must be accepted in building the outer wall of protection for the nadhaswaram. It's workable with vision, sensitivity for tradition and an eye on strengthening temple life and temple economy.
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