The ‘Carnatic’isation of the Clarinet


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. Indeed latter day violinists such as T Chowdiah went so far as to say that the violin was an ancient Indian instrument called the Dhanur Veena.


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.


The clarinet was also considered to fare poorly in comparison to the nagaswaram. It was felt that like many other Western instruments it could not produce gamakas – oscillations and karvais- the long sweeping curves. It however found a ready place in Carnatic music orchestras that began doing the rounds in last years of the 19th and early years of the 20th century. The Mysore Palace Band, the Corporation Band of Madras and the Nathamuni Band, all had clarinettists. In a radio interview given in the 1940s, ‘Tiger’ Varadachariar spoke warmly in praise of Clarinet Abbayi and his rendition of the raga Balahamsa followed by the kriti Ninu Basi. In his view it was Abbayi who gave the clarinet its status as a Carnatic instrument.


‘Veena’ Dhanammal, notoriously conservative in matters musical, was however all for the clarinet and appreciated Abbayi and Balaraman of the Nathamuni Band. Records also speak of a Balakrishna Naidu who was a well-known performer on the instrument. T Balasaraswathi regularly featured Radhakrishna Naidu, an AIR artiste on the clarinet in her dance performances.


The die-hard conservatives however took time to adjust to the clarinet. It was in fact banned at the Tyagaraja Aradhana! This was at a time when after the unification of the various factions, the Aradhana had several leading nagaswaram artistes at the helm of affairs. The clarinet according to them was a Western instrument and therefore had no place in a homage to Tyagaraja. They had conveniently forgotten the violin which was of the same vintage as the clarinet. It is also ironical and perhaps poetic justice that AKC Natarajan not only succeeded in revoking the ban in later years, but also served as a Secretary of the Tyaga Brahma Mahotsava Sabha, the organisation which conducts the Aradhana.


AKC is a third generation clarinettist. His grandfather Kuppuswami Naidu played the clarinet for Sadir performances and his father Chinni Krishna Naidu was a well-known clarinet player. But it is really thanks to AKC that this instrument has gained acceptability. Not only has he worked on the instrument to remove its perceived flaws, but he has also perfected a performing technique which has made the instrument most suitable for Carnatic music. He has brought to a logical conclusion what Sarabhoji and Sylvester De Costa began two hundred years ago.


Sriram Venkatakrishnan


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The article appeared in The Hindu –