Chinna (Tamil for small) melam or the “small band” was a dance performance accompanied by small instruments like mridangam, sruthi, etc . It is supposed to have been the precursor of what is today called Bharathanatyam.
The Periya (Tamil for large/Big) melam literally, “big band” is a traditional Carnatic music ensemble consisting of the nagaswaram, the tavil, the talam, and some form of harmonizing drone, either traditionally an ottu or more recently a shruti petti (bellows reed organ). Chinna Melam and Periya Melam were part of the temple rituals .
The below article is edited and published with permission from the author Mr. Sriram Venkatakrishnan. It provides a historical point of view of the role of the clarinet, its “carnaticisation” (adaptation to the carnatic music system) and its role as an accompaniment to the chinna melam.
“Carnatic music like all other art forms has evolved continuously thanks to various influences. The era of the British Raj saw composers such as Tyagaraja, Muttuswami Dikshitar and Patnam Subramania Iyer experimenting with western tunes. A Western instrument that was assimilated into Carnatic music thanks to the efforts of Muttuswami Dikshitar, his younger brother Balaswami Dikshitar and disciple Vadivelu of the Tanjavur Quartet was the violin. So successfully was this done that today it is hard to imagine Carnatic music sans the violin.
An instrument that appeared on the scene at around the same time as the violin is the clarinet. It was brought to India during the reign of King Sarabhoji II of Tanjavur. The ruler who had voluntarily become a pensioner of the British in 1799 after reigning for a year, devoted himself to the arts. Having had his education under Father Schwartz and later at the St George’s School, Madras, he had a ear for Western classical music and imported several instruments of that genre for daily use by an orchestra in his employment in Tanjavur. Thanks to the monumental work of Dr S Seetha, former Head of the Department of Music, Madras University, compiled in the treatise “Tanjore as a Seat of Music”, we know of Sarabhoji’s correspondence regarding his musical instruments. A letter dated 26/12/1802 and others of the same period from a Silvester De Costa to Sarabhoji state that the palace had four clarinets among other musical instruments. The clarinet was part of the Western music ensemble put together by the king.
According to Dr Seetha, it was Mahadeva Nattuvanar* who first used the clarinet for performing Carnatic music. Even during Sarabhoji’s reign it was being used as an accompaniment for the chinna melam (the lesser ensemble) which accompanied the dance performances of the Devadasis. In an era when a prudish Victorian morality was categorising the dancing girl as being the root cause of all social evil, perhaps the clarinet also suffered, for it took the instrument an inordinately long time to be accepted as a Carnatic music instrument. One has to only compare the relative ease with which the violin came to be accepted. Several of the Trinity’s disciples were violinists while not even one attempted the clarinet.
* Mahadeva Nattuvanar, was a descendant of the Ganagamuttu nattuvanar . He was the son of Shivanandam( one of the Tanjore quartet brothers). Mahadevan nattuvanar’s daughter was married to Meenakshisundaram Pillai who came to madras at Rukmini Devi Arundale’s Invitation to teach at Kalakshetra (Sunil Kothari, 2000)