Registered with the Registrar of Newspapers for India under R.N.I 53640/91

Vol. XXVI No. 07, July 16-31, 2016

‘Banding’ for Carnatic Music

by Dr. A. Raman

Reading The Madras Corporation band: a story of social change and indigenisation (Asian Music 1996-1997, 28: 61-86) by Gregory Booth (University of Auckland, New Zealand) brought back pleasant memories of my childhood in Madras. With Gregory’s permission, I provide some details from his article from a Madras-history perspective.

band-rehearsesThe Madras Corporation Band rehearses outside of Nehru Stadium, 1989.
They stand in their usual circular formation. Clockwise from left:
M. Rajaratanam: talam, J. Venugopal: baritone (euphonium),
P.A. Kodundaraman: alto saxophone, Bandmaster V. Krishnamurthi: clarinet,
P. Gajapati: euphonium, V. Babu: bagpipes, G. Kanayan: bass drum.

P.R. Nathamuni (1900-1960) and his brother Lakshmipathi (1902-1990) established the Nathamuni Band (NB) in Madras in 1930. One ‘Govindaswami-Das Band is supposed to have preceded NB in Madras, but details are untraceable. The Nathamuni brothers’ father and grandfather played nagaswaram and clarinet. Nathamuni played clarinet, which he learnt from his father, while Lakshmipathi played alto-saxophone and clarinet. Up to the 1960s, NB was popular in Madras, playing in popular public spaces. NB’s repertoire was mostly Carnatic music kriti-s, thus differing from an army-band performance. NB consisted of ten members clad in trousers and ‘bush’ shirts, who played the clarinet, soprano clarinet, alto-saxophone, cornet, trombone, possibly baritone horn, euphonium, bagpipes, tavil, and tãlam. To accommodate South-Indian classical musical notes, NB included a tavil and a tãlam. The band also included a bass instrument – a low brass horn (tuba) – which gave the band a distinctive sound. Nathamuni played several pieces solo.

Seeing merit in having a wind band of its own, the Corporation of Madras invited NB to join its service. The brothers rejected the Corporation’s invitation, probably because they made more money working independently. Columbia released seven 78 rpm recordings of NB: six Tyagaraja kriti-s and one English tune (English Note as per the Columbia Catalogue) in 1941. The English Note, popularised by Madurai Mani, became more popular in Madras after A.P. Nagarajan’s Tillãnã Mohanãmbal (1968) filming Kothamangalam Subbu’s serial in Ananda Vikatan in the 1950s. Musicologist Robert Garfias has the following to say on NB in 1974: “In South India, while some of these bands play film songs, others like the Nathamuni band play a kind of repertoire that is on the edge of the South Indian classical tradition. Some kriti-s and such are the same as those performed by classical South Indian musicians. In addition, however, since the tradition of these brass bands is close to that of the nagaswaram bands, they included some special ragas not often heard in mainstream South Indian music. The nagaswaram ensemble is used primarily but not exclusively as an outdoor ensemble. The nagaswaram itself is a powerful sounding, long double reed instrument, more than twice the length of its North Indian counterpart, the shenai. Starting sometime in the late 19th Century, or perhaps early 20th Century, some nagaswaram players began to switch to the Western Albert system clarinet, paralleling the same transition that was happening in Turkey and in Eastern Europe.

Sérfoji II maintained (1777–1832) a wind band in Tanjore palace. Therefore familiarity with western musical instruments among Tanjore residents is not surprising. Tanjore nagaswaram players learnt to play soprano versions with a Müller clarinet (13, 14 keys). One of them (identity unknown) taught clarinet to his sons Balakrishnan (1865-1925), Guruswami (1870-1950), and Venkataraman (1875-1945). This group grew into a family band and became popular as the Balakrishnan Tanjore Band (BTB). BTB mastered the art of playing kirtanam-s and varnams. This trend set by BTB was followed by NB in early 20th Century Madras. Some of the renderings by BTB were recorded by the Gramophone Company on 78 rpm discs, listed as ‘Telugu and Tamizh tunes’, in 1911. Besides many European musical instruments, BTB used tãlam and a native drum (not a tavil).

In response to Nathamuni’s refusal, the Corporation advertised for a wind band that would became the Madras Corporation Band (MCB) in 1946. Accepting the Corporation’s offer, BTB moved from Tanjore and became the Corporation Band in 1947. Guruswami, the last living brother of Balakrishnan, was the notional band master, whereas Balakrishnan’s son, Kodantapãni led the band. Kodandapãni’s son Ramdas assumed leadership of the band in 1958. The Corporation Band reported to the Parks Department of the Corporation in My Ladye’s Garden. The Band performed like a royal band, performing only before Mayoralty. However, over time, the Band’s duties included public performances and official functions of the Corporation. It was also available – for hire – to play at private functions. A notification by the Commissioner of the Corporation, December 1988 indicates that the Band performed at different Madras city parks.

Anyone interested in the musical nuances and details of instruments used by BTB, MCB, and NB, should read Booth. I remember seeing the Corporation Band performing on the Marina (where Debi Prasad Roy Chowdhury’s Triumph of Labour statue now stands), holding my father’s hand. I understand that the Corporation Band survives and continues to perform in a low key. Talking of the Corporation Band, a reference to Madras Police Band (MPB) of the Tamil Nadu Special Police is inevitable. Unlike the Corporation Band, the Police in eye-catching uniform play only Western tunes, and, sometimes film music.

Madras brass bands have a fascinating legacy of playing Carnatic music using mostly Western musical instruments. Melodious film music scored by S.M. Subbiah and K.V. Mahadevan overwhelmingly included Western tunes. Contemporary Carnatic music masters A.K.C. Natarajãn, K. Gopalnãth, and U. Srinivãs play Western instruments. The unknown nagaswaram player of 19th Century Tanjore, who mastered the clarinet, his three sons, and the Nathamuni brothers in Madras in mid-20th Century were the trailblazers in using Western instruments to play Carnatic music. Do we not want to remember them?

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