During this Tamil month of Panguni (mid-March to mid-April) the divine sound of nadhaswaram (the traditional double reed wind instrument of the South) would be reverberating from various temples and marriage halls across Tamil Nadu. Not for nothing it is called the “mangala vaadhyam” – the auspicious instrument - as no Hindu function is complete without its hallmark sound.
The corona pandemic has not only stilled the sounds of this majestic instrument but has also undermined the livelihood of hundreds of nadhaswaram and thavil (the accompanying percussions instrument) artistes. As temples closed down and weddings got cancelled or trimmed, these musicians, who hail from the backward isai velaalar and barber communities, saw their earnings disappear.
It is during Panguni that most major temples have their car festivals when special concerts are held in the evenings starting with nadhaswaram. “These week long festivals held in various temples across Tamil Nadu were a major source of income for these artistes, who get paid around Rs.10,000 per concert. Even this amount has to be shared amongst two nadhaswaram and two thavil players and one person who keeps the beat. Since the Thanjavur region is dotted with big temples these vidwans were assured of a decent income during this festival season,” pointed out Lalitha Ram, documentary film maker. But as temples locked up their huge doors these artistes are literally twiddling their thumbs when their fingers should be weaving magic on that long instrument that calls for extraordinary stamina and breath control.
Similarly the nadhaswaram players were also in demand as many weddings happen during this auspicious month. The lockdown and the attending restrictions have resulted in many weddings getting postponed. Even those that were held got abbreviated to the basic minimum and the nadhawaram group was on the top of the list to be hived off.
“My team was booked for three weddings and two other small functions during March but all the families called to say that they are doing away with the nadhaswaram as only twenty guests were allowed. Since the prohits conduct the wedding ceremony they are considered essential and get retained, whereas we come under the non-essential category,” rued Anandan, a nadhaswaram artiste from South Chennai.
There are about 10,000 nadhaswaram and thavil artistes in Chennai alone and a similar number across Tamil Nadu. The pandemic and the consequent lockdown which coincided with their peak seasons have rendered these artistes idle and shrinking their income. Many are only hoping that the curfew does not get extended as that could eat into the Chithirai festival in Madurai to be held for 15 days from April 2 – another major income opportunity for them.
The Tamil Nadu government has a pension scheme of Rs 1,000 per month for old nadhaswaram and thavil players with nearly 8,000 beneficiaries. Even here many were forced to bribe the local officials to get their dues till the government decided to credit the amount directly into their bank accounts. But the active players still have to survive on the small retainer temples give them to play during the daily poojas and depend on the big festivals and weddings and other functions to increase their earnings.
“We can only hope that the coming Tamil New Year on April 14, after the lockdown is lifted, will bring more engagements. Again if due to the economic slowdown following the pandemic people decide to trim their wedding budgets, we could be in for another spell without any work,” said Anandan.