An Article by Anjana Ranjan in The Hindu
The most important member of a Bharatanatyam orchestra is, arguably, the nattuvanar. This is the person who plays the set of cymbals known simply as talam.
The pair of talams consists of two cymbals made of different kinds of metal alloys. Though cymbals are of various kinds, used in classical and light music the world over, those used in Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi are heavier and have a greater responsibility, so to speak.
This can be said because the sounds produced by tapping the cymbals at various angles represent the different sounds of the dancer’s feet when they make contact with the ground.
For example, striking the ground with a flat foot creates a particular sound, and placing the heel on the ground creates almost no sound. When these two movements are alternated, the resultant sound pattern alternates hard and soft beats. These beats create syncopated patterns, and all are accurately reproduced by the trained nattuvanar. Besides, the talams are used for effects, such as bell sounds, as well.
Well versed in the art Traditionally, nattuvanars were the gurus of Bharatanatyam. Because they were as well versed in the art of dance as music, and often were the choreographers of the dance too, they were in the best position to provide nattuvangam for a dancer.
In this traditional approach, the nattuvanar was considered the conductor of the entire programme and is still referred to as such. Jayadeva, in one of his famous ashtapadis, gave his mudra name as “Padmavati Charana Chaarana Chakravarti,” referring to himself as the one who was as a king to Padmavati’s dancing feet.
Today, however, nattuvanars often work with dancers in the same manner as other accompanists. Since they are not familiar with the compositions from inception, they follow the footwork of the dancer, rather than guide it.
Of the two cymbals, the larger one that produces the bass sound is made of iron, while the treble sound comes from the brass cymbal held in the right hand. “In olden days it was made of the five-metal alloy used in creating statues as of Nataraja, etc., but this difficult practice was gradually given up,” says G. Elangovan, who hails from a traditional family of Bharatanatyam gurus.
As in all musical devices, the talam should adhere to a particular pitch to help it blend mellifluously with the rest of the orchestra. Of course the cymbals themselves cannot be tuned, but the pitch of the set can be altered by changing the right-hand one.
Not many nattuvanars do change the pitch of their talam however.
Steady tempo The Kumbakonam area, known also for its brass oil lamps, is known for traditional manufacturers of the talam. Earlier made by hand by ironsmiths, the heavier talams, say nattuvanars, are helpful in maintaining a steady tempo. Today, perhaps in keeping with escalating costs and less demanding customers, the weight of the talams available in the market is much less than before. “This may also be because they are created using a die,” says Elangovan.
- Talam/Cymbals Type non-tuned percussion instrument
- Stream Classical, western and light music
- Made of Iron and Brass
- Exponents G.Elagovan, Seetaram Sarma, Adyar Lakshman. T.Sankaran….
Contact Smt. Jayakamala Pandian, daughter and disciple of Guru Sri Swamimalai.K. Rajaratnam Pillai if you would like to learn/brush up your nattuvangum skills in person or online. She can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org