August 02, 2008

Musicians at a Wedding Down South

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.

Note: The post has spawned an interesting debate on whether the instrument shown in the pictures above is a Shehnai or a Nadaswaram or if using both interchangeably is correct.

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? :)


Kelly said...


This is such an interesting story and history of your cultural weddings. I enjoyed it so much! I would hate to see the closing of that store. A piece of historical culture will die with the closing of it! I hope either some family member of theirs or some historical preservation department (or government or historical institution)would see that this heritage does not fade away.

What a lovely story of your memories of attending weddings as a child and the entire process of weddings taking place in your country. I wish that I could have the luxury of attending such a ceremonial wedding, seeing the bands etc... It would be so nice to see a video or some documentary of the weddings! I can see you filming or photographing a documentary for television or doing something that includes all of your historical knowledge on a broader mainstream outlet.

My father has been all over the world, including India, many times. I have seen numerous photos and videos of him everywhere, but when we travel what we miss on our travels is experiencing the actual real cultures. We only get the site-seeing, tourism-type tours of places and miss what I want to experience in my travels and that being the actual cultural aspects of real people, living in real life, like what you write about in your stories on your blog. You bring me into your world in India which I so appreciate through your writings!

Well done, as usual!

kenju said...

Thanks for the lesson. I have been fortunate enough to work on flowers for two Indian weddings, and they were quite the production! I enjoyed learning about the various things.

neha vish said...

What an utterly fascinating post! I fondly remember the din of certain weddings - there's this delicate balance between noise and music that is easily broken. :)

Cindy/Snid said...

I have always loved the sound of the harmonium...

Lucy said...

Thanks, Anil, for another beautiful glimpse into the details of life where you live.

Our former sponsor child in India frequently used to report on enjoying eating sweets at weddings!

My friend here who blogs as Rosie went to India to learn Karnatac music, and brought back a traditional harmonium, which she brought over and played and sung to one evening here. It was wonderful. I hadn't realised how important the harmonium was in Indian music.

Anonymous said...

the instrument the men are playing looks like a Nadaswaram not a Shenai
Nice write up

Coffee Messiah said...

I can only imagine hearing this music live.

An interesting history of the harmonium also, Thanks!

Anil P said...

Kelly: Thank you. Indian marriages are fun, and they differ a great deal from region to region. No one marriage represents the others. I quite agree that travels overseas can end up more as sight seeing tours than an assimilation of the local culture and traditions.

Language barriers largely limit such ‘natural’ interactions, and it helps to know a local who has an interest and an inclination to guide the visitor. If travel agents drive the visits, more likely than not the visit will be limited to the ‘touristy’ places.

India can overwhelm as in ‘what to see’ and ‘what to leave’. Again it depends on the visitor. One other issue is lack of information that takes story telling down the country roads where in essence India lives. India’s urban centres are more of ‘service centres’, a mix of everything until no one thing stands out.

As for a documentary, it’s likely an Indian will tell a story differently from what a mainstream Western audience might want to see, one reason why I feel most Indian documentaries for western audiences have been made by Western ‘eyes’. Indian channels are yet to discover the need for credible documentaries :)

Thank you for reading the post.

Kenju: Thank you. I can well imagine what it must have been getting the flower arrangements ready for the Indian productions :)

Neha Vish: Thank you. You bet, nothing like a wedding to stir things up in the days leading to it :)

Cindy/Snid: I agree. It took me sometime to begin liking the harmonium. It was not until I began to appreciate Bhajans and Kirtans did I develop a liking for the harmonium. There’s Indian variants to the harmonium, constructed to enable the unique requirements of Indian music.

Lucy: Thank you. Yes, sweets are an overwhelming constant in India weddings. Carnatic music is a separate discipline by itself, different from the Hindustani. It is rigourous.

Anon: You do have a valid point but more a difference in nomenclature than in construction, for, the Nadaswaram is wont to be known as the Shehnai up North. There’s little or no difference between the two cousins, both are reed instruments.

Moreover the Shehnai can range in length as also in the number of openings (between six and nine holes), indicating that there is no one single construction, more so when these instruments have been customized to the singer’s requirements. The harmonium is another example of how variants exist, usually known by different names unique to regions.

The earliest manifestation of the Shehnai is most probably the pungi that Snake Charmers use.

Coffee Messaih: Thank you :)

mekie said...

The 'shehnai' is actually a nadaswaram and the 'dholak' is a thavil.

Anonymous said...

I am reasonably sure shehnai and nadaswaram are different! i dont think the shehnai is so long :) they are for all practical purposes different instruments, and even produces a diff sound! The nadaswaram goes mostly with the Thavil that u see in the picture :)

bobbie said...

A very interesting post, Anil. Thank you for your description of events. Indian music is strange to our ears, but very pleasant. I love learning about your customs, and the story of the instruments.

Vidya Jayaraman said...

Nice post and pictures! This being a rather pet topic of mine these days I do agree with what anon here says that they are nagasvaram players. Though the shehnAi and the nAgasvaram (aka nAyanam) have a lot of common etymological roots - surnAi, nAyanam and shared history , today in their commonly seen forms in the North and south they do differ a lot in construction than it obviously seems. That they are both oboe-type reed instruments is perhaps the only common thread.To summarize:
- Unlike the nagasvaram, the shehnai has a conical bore, fashioned (usually) out of a single piece of wood,has seven finger hole and one thumbhile whereas the southern counterpart has 12 holes. Perhaps the instrument in the south that resembles the shehnai closest is the one used by the Kota tribes.

Phew that was a long comment :)

Lakshmi said...

The nadaswaram as its called in Tamil is a highlight of most weddings as you have portrayed in the picture..and one of my native villages (from my grandmother's side )is the birthplace of Arunachalam, the famous nadaswaram maestro. These musicians do not just perform at weddings..from festivals like Deepavali to katcheris..they were omnipresent..During my childhood in Madras they used to come home on Deepavali and start performing at 4 am and wake us up..
Sorry abt the long a bit carried away :)

Anonymous said...

this is such a lovely post, Anil. my chief (perhaps after the plantain left feast) of weddings is the music - or what passes for it in some cases - the getti melam, reaching a crescendo when it is time for the thali or mangalsutra to be tied. I have heard that earlier, wedding musicians used to be very well trained professionals...

Anonymous said...

Wonderful story. Sometimes they do have very good musicians playing at weddings. And if you are like me, sitting in a corner avoiding the army of relatives, it's a great idea to listen to the music.

Also, I have seen quite a few instrument makers and sellers in the Balepet/Cottonpet gallis. Shuld check them out and click some pics. Thanks for the lead.

However, I found the use of the word Shehnai instead of the Nadaswaram very disturbing. Unfortunately, I associate Shenhnai with the music Doordarshan used to play when a big politician kicked the bucket, not weddings and more than a few South Indians will agree with me.

Sarah Laurence said...

One of my favorite novels ever was Vikram Seth’s A Suitable Boy. Cultural difference seem to intensify around concepts of marriage and celebration. Do you think, when your time comes, that you’ll have a traditional wedding?

Vidya Jayaraman said...

The history is a little muddly - with as many historians and scholars ranging from Profs B.C.Deva, Jairazbhoy, to Dr.B.M.Sundaram to Dr.V.Raghavan postulating various theories with supporting arguments. So it is not clear where this instrument came from, whether it was parallelly indigenous to each region etc.

If you are referring to the terms as how a layperson would use them interchangeably then it might be ok. The problem is that even this generic use of the word nagasvaram for the following instruments
you cite is not always accepted. Timiri and Bhari are varieties of nagasvaram and can use the term nagasvaram.The ottu is an oboe that is part of the nagasvaram ensemble and is always referred to by that name. The mukhavina
was sometimes part of the chinnamelam ensemble but it was never known as the nagasvaram anywhere!! So in essence you can call the nagasvaram as a shehnai just like you can call the
sarasvati veena and rudra veena and the chitra veena as 'veena' and in this process of generalization we lose out a lot on the musical information,
history and specificities of subcultures.

Anil P said...

Mekhala: A variation of the Shehnai. I agree.

VJ: The 'Nadaswaram' is probably correctly called 'Nagaswaram'. The Nagaswaram is not of uniform size, and has several variations to it just as it is a variation of the Shehnai, a generic forefather possibly.

Not all Nagaswarams are long, some are equally short, and each in turn answers to the Shehnai.

If the Nagaswaram is in turn identified as the Bari, the Timri, and the Ottu, then it ceases to exist as a Nagaswaram except in its three forms, just as a Shehnai would cease to exist except in its derivations, the Nagaswaram :)

Refer the note appended to the post, and Vidya's second comment.

Bobbie: Thank you. I believe that at times, music like food, is about acquiring a taste.

Vidya: Thank you for your thoughts. I felt the same, that all these wind instruments might in turn answer to the Shehnai Group though I'm not sure of the exact chronology of their lineage. I quite agree that a generic reference might actually take away from the history and the sub-cultures.

Lakshmi: I can imagine how divine it must feel to be woken up at 4 am :) I remember waking up at 5 am in the village and hearing devotional songs carried on the breeze, waxing and waning on the strength of the breeze, bringing a faraway feel to the morning.

Charu: The crescendo can be spectacular. Thank you.

Which Main? What Cross?: Yes, it must come from practice though I must add that it must be a tad discouraging to play for a crowd with their attention elsewhere like it usually is at the weddings.

The use of Shehnai and Nagaswaram can be debatable though down South it is more likely to be called the Nagaswaram as you rightly pointed out unlike in the North, and Vidya has weighed in with an interesting take in her subsequent comment. And I've added a note as well.

Sarah Laurence: Yes, many differences actually even if the important aspects are the same. For example often geographies weigh in with respect to the use of fruits and plants in the wedding rituals. Certain aspects of the marriage rituals will differ from caste to caste though not all. Often the presentation of a concept or belief will differ even as the belief itself will be common across regions.

The import of tradition among the current generation, more so in the cities, has reduced by quite a bit, and what little is followed is more due to their parents belonging to the earlier generation, arranged for by them. However this is not so evident as you travel to the hinterland.

Anonymous said...

The moment I saw the first pic, I thouht, ah that looks like Mysore (or rather Karnataka). Seems I was right! Even when people began organizing marriages in community halls, the traditional sound of classical music continued at weddings (I remember from childhood days in the 70s). I am not sure if this has been replaced with contemporary music now (like you see in much of North India now).

Also, harmoniums were a must in most of Bengal -- at least for girls, who had to many a time 'entertain' the groom's family when they came to 'check out' the girl for their son.

Anonymous said...

Nice story. Deriving from the marriage hall to the shehnai, nadaswarams..:)

Old things fading out always brings out sad emotions.

Anil P said...

Shantanu: Somehow I've come to associate the harmonium with bhajans and kirtans. I've been wanting to visit Bengal for some time now, more specifically Calcutta. Without a local 'connection' the language would be a barrier toward assimilating the place :)

I just wonder if the parents "checking out" the girl's expertise with the harmonium for their son did so more to find out her interest in the Arts. Somewhere they must believe that the discipline involved in learning the Arts must temper a person sufficiently enough to make them mature in certain respects, a quality that must have a thing or two going for arranged marriages. Just a thought.

Anu: Thank you. Remembering the 'old things' is about not losing sight of that which began it all :)

Sara at Come Away With Me said...

Anil, thank you for your recent visit and comment on my blog. "Lotus-eaters" does cause one to imagine interesting scenes in the mind!

This was an enjoyable story...I saw another commenter mentioned Vickram Seth's A Suitable Boy...also a favorite book of mine. It was a fascinating story and I can still remember scenes from it although I read it over 10 years ago.

I wish I could have heard the music you are describing...I am more familiar with Middle Eastern music, which I also love. The rhythms and sounds are so different from Western style, that's why I like them so much.

Salil said...

Hi Anil,
It was a very informative blog.
I have been there but dont think I could have written even 1/10th of what you have written. I would have loved to have read this before my visit.

Anonymous said...

Intersting! Musical instruments always invoke interest. Shehnai is called shenai in Konkani that I know, any other language is it called so? Kannada?

Unfortunatley, one do not see shenai in Goan weddings but mercifully the art lives among the temples in Goa during the mornings and evenings along with 'Chowghada' drum beats.
Whereas harmonium is found in and around India mostly accompanying classical music, Bhanjans in temples and for natyasangeet (form of music in certain 'musical plays') etc.

One student researching on flutes gave a formula for its length and position of associated 'holes' for the notes with it. Basically longer is a wind blown musical instrument, 'lower' are the group of notes.

Goan wedding season among Hindus start basically two weeks after Diwali and goes on until end of May.I reckon it differs among different regions in India.

Anil P said...

Sara: The only books by Vikram Seth that I've read are "From Heaven's Lake" and "The Golden Gate". I've not got around to reading "A Suitable Boy" but I can imagine what some scenes from it will be like :)

If I were to record the music the next time around I'll put it up.

Salil: Thank you. :)

Goan: The wind instruments are derivatives of one another, and are called by a variety of names though I'm sure the knowledgeable will be able to identify the nuances.

The length will be a factor for sure, I remember my lessons in Physics dealing with resonance :)

I've always liked the sound of bhajans and kirtans, only the mikes sometimes spoil the experience :)