Before the advent of ‘marriage halls’ (known as Kalyana Mantap) most Indian marriages used be conducted at the home of the bride, the others at temples. I attended several such marriages as a child. It helped that I had several aunts from either side of my family, resulting in a succession of marriages over the years.
Weeks before the wedding date, relatives from near and far, usually women, traveling long distances, having left their working husbands behind, would gather at the home of the bride. And then would commence a very enjoyable time with the household turning into a bee hive of activity as preparations for the marriage began in earnest. With sweets being central to wedding preparations, a whole variety of them, it was only natural that I would, along with sundry other cousins keep a close watch on the large tins they were stored in, raiding them at the first unguarded opportunity that presented itself. The elders even if they knew of our capers did not let on.
In the evenings the house rang to devotional songs with neighbours joining in as the women took turns singing songs, much laughter interspersing playful ribbing as reluctant singers were prodded into giving voice to their vocals.
The shamiana (pavilion), chairs, flower arrangements, horse carriages, cooks, and the wedding band used to be arranged for in advance. I took a fascination to the music band (also known as a brass band or procession band), attracted to their tidy uniforms often a bright red, and shiny epaulettes and shoes, marching in formation while playing gleaming musical instruments, often a mix of clarinets, trumpets, and saxophones.
Widely employed during weddings, brass bands lead the procession (also known as ‘baarat’) as the groom makes his way to the wedding venue on the female of a horse, known as ghodi. The male of the horse is called ghoda. Also, the night before the wedding the brass band leads the bride’s side of the family in a procession to the groom’s house to escort the groom for the milni ceremony.
The repertoire of early brass bands was Indian classical music, largely raga based, rendered with a mix of shehnais, dholaks, and the harmonium among others. With the advent of film songs popularizing wedding sequences in Hindi films, brass bands added films songs to their repertoire.
Over time ‘marriage halls’ began to make their presence felt, essentially shifting the preparations out of the house and to a commercial venue. Flower arrangements, brass band, seating arrangements, food, and even accommodation are now available as services for a fee.
Each time I attend a wedding I look for the musicians, which I suspect is more for their outfits than their ability with the musical instruments. However this time around last year the five musicians I met in Bangalore during the wedding were clad in simple clothes: shirts and white dhotis. It might have to do with the instruments they were playing. I cannot imagine a clarinet or a saxophone with a dhoti.
Of the group two played the dholak, one was on the harmonium, while the other two played the shehnai, an ancient Indian wind instrument. The shehnai (also spelled shenai) is rarely played solo. It is usually accompanied by another shehnai. While one holds a drone the other exults in a succession of subtleties, flowing richly.
Ustad Bismillah Khan, the legendary shehnai exponent, came to be synonymous with the shehnai and no Indian marriage is deemed complete without the shehnai making its presence felt with its soulful tunes that reflect the seriousness of the occasion even as it exuberates in the joyousness of the event, alternating between smiles and the tears streaming down the cheeks of the bride as she prepares to leave her parents’ home for that of her husband, a separation that distinguishes between the two phases of life in the Indian scheme of things.
Inching closer to the hand operated harmonium I noticed on the bellows a company label showing a map of undivided India, indicating the harmonium was manufactured before India’s partition in 1947. It is very likely that it was rolled out in 1944, the year R. Annaihya started Bharath Harmonium Works near Balapet Square, Bangalore.
Along with the harmonium the now yellowing label has survived over sixty years, enduring the daily rigour on the musician’s circuit. It cannot but be a testimony to the care lavished on the harmonium over the years.
Bharath Harmonium Works still operates out of the same place it first started, manufacturing a range of musical instruments, even the telephone number is the same as that on the original label except for the prefixes occasioned by a growing Bangalore population. The third generation now runs the place.
I spoke with Yashpal, the grandson of the founder, R. Annaihya. He told me that along with his brothers he took over daily operations at the manufacturing unit after his father passed away. He does not remember much of the old days except that his grandfather worked under Hanif, a Muslim musician he credits with introducing the harmonium to Bangalore. I can only guess what he might mean by this because he does not recollect any details beyond this except to say that Hanif, on finding that harmonium was not in use in Bangalore, maybe also elsewhere in Karnataka State, “took four carpenters to Bombay somewhere in 1888-1890 to train in the art of making the harmonium.”
He does not recollect the exact year his grandfather went to work for Hanif. “It must be somewhere between 1930-34,” he said, arriving at the date backwards from 1944, the year his grandfather, R. Annaihya, started his own company, Bharath Harmonium Works, after working for Hanif for “ten years or so”.
R. Annaihya passed away in 1992, leaving behind a legacy whose future now appears increasingly bleak.
“I may not continue this much longer,” Yashpal said, indicating that Bharath Harmonium Works faces imminent closure. “I function with a lone carpenter,” he explained before continuing, “Hardly anyone wants to learn the craft now.”
The hall resounds to the tunes of the shehnai while the harmonium keeps up a steady drone. Strangely I cannot recollect the harmonium player use the keys, only the external bellows, depressing them rhythmically, forcing the air into the internal bellows, expanding them as they push against the reeds to produce the characteristic sound of the harmonium. Actually I cannot recollect seeing keys on that harmonium either. I’m not sure if they had any.
I sit on the side watching them play in concert. They hail from Tamilnadu, traveling from wedding to wedding. July is an auspicious month for weddings in the Hindu calendar.
“This is a busy month for us,” the shehnai player leans over and tells me, smiling as he returns it to his lips, straining on it as the tunes fill the large hall.
The Nadaswaram is also referred as Nagaswaram or Nagasvara (the name probably owing its origins to the Pungi that snake charmers use, Nag is Indian for Cobra). However the Pungi is much smaller. One school of music lovers will insist that Nagaswaram is the correct name, and not Nadaswaram. If the Pungi origin is true then they make a valid point.
The Nadaswaram itself is not of uniform length across its constructs. A shorter version of Nadaswaram is known as Mukhavina. There’s yet another length of the Nagaswaram that is known as the Timiri, and another version that is known as the Bari. The Nagaswaram that functions as a drone is also known as the Ottu. In each case the length differs. However the variations do not matter insofar as knowing the instrument as Nagaswaram among the people of South India.
But to the North of India, Nagaswaram is seen as a variation of the Shehnai just as the Mukhavina, the Timiri, the Bari, and the Ottu are seen as variations of the Nagaswaram and/or differing in nomenclature where applicable.
The instrument that South Indians know as the Nadaswaram the North Indians will identify as the Shehnai, else as belonging to the Shehnai group. It’s a common construct insofar as both are wind instruments, using bamboo reeds, the number of reeds could differ between them just as their lengths differ among themselves, their use during weddings, and they’re both played in a drone-'active' pairing.
With the Shehnai there is no consistency in the number of openings either, ranging from six to nine, but they’re the Shehnai just the same.
Down South the Shehnai is known as the Hindustani music counterpart of Carnatic music. Up North the Nagaswaram is known as the Carnatic music counterpart of Hindustani music.
Out West, the Shehnai and hence the Nagaswaram will be seen as a variation of the Clarinet, and vice versa.
Once variations come into the picture the original name ends up being a generic name, just the way the Nagaswaram/Nadaswarsam became a generic name for the Timri, the Bari, the Ottu, and the Mukhvina, just as the Shehnai probably became a generic name for the Nagaswaram, or possibly the other way round depending on which came first.
This makes me curious to know which of these three came first. Does anyone know for certain? Grist for another North – South debate? :)