Nadaswaram Couple

Sheik Mahaboob Subhani and his wife Kaleeshabi Mahaboob


Sheik Mahaboob Subhani and his wife Kaleeshabi Mahaboob, the nadaswaram couple, are disciples of the celebrated vidwan, late Sheik Chinna Moulana Sahib. They are also the asthana vidwans of Sringeri Sri Sharada Peetham.


In a conversation with Revathi R, the couple spoke about their experience of more than 25 years as performing artistes, the nadaswaram heritage of Andhra Pradesh, their concerts at Hindu temples and their journey from Andhra Pradesh to Srirangam ...

You play nadaswaram together. Who started first?
Sheik: We both belong to Prakasam District in Andhra Pradesh, where many people of our community have been playing nadaswaram for generations. We both started to play nadaswaram at the age of seven. But I went on with my academics and took up a job in a private company. She took music as a full time career and was accompanying her uncle Sheik John Sahib.

Kaleeshabi: We were playing individually with our fathers and uncle, before marriage. He had to take up a job due to family circumstances. Occasionally he would accompany his father, Sheik Meera Sahib.

Sheik Mahaboob Subhani and Kaleeshabi Mahaboob

Did you start playing together only after marriage?
Sheik: It is an interesting story. Kaleeshabi was very good at this instrument even as a child. Her parents and elders in the family wanted to get her married to a man who would encourage her in this art. She is my paternal auntÕs daughter. I was passionate about the instrument but could not take it up seriously because I had to go for a job. I thought, by supporting her, I would do something good to this art. Both families agreed and we got married in December1977.

Kaleeshabi: But I insisted that we played nadaswaram as a couple after our marriage, and would not accompany my uncle ... He agreed to give it a try. Before our marriage, during Vinayaka Chaturthi, the well-known nadaswaram duo, M. P. N. Sethuraman and Ponnuswamy, had arranged for our concert in Dindigul. We both practised for two months and played at Vella Pillaiyar Koil in Dindigul. That was our first concert in Tamilnadu as well as our first concert as a duo.

Sheik: That was an important day in our professional life. She had been playing with senior Tavil vidwans like Emani Raghavayya and I had just started to play as a main artiste on stage. I used to pause whenever she took a breath while playing, in the early days of playing together! I did not like my own playing.    

Kaleeshabi, you started your career after marriage?
Kaleeshabi: Not immediately after marriage. We were continuing our training at Sarada Sangeetha Kalasala, Kurnool, under K.Chandramouli, who encouraged us to sit for lower and higher exams in music, so that we could find a job as music teachers and make our living ... But, the turning point was after we attended the Thyagaraja Aradhana at Tiruvaiyaru in 1981.

Tell us about the day which changed your lives?
Sheik: Our guru, K. Chandramouli, wanted us to accompany him to Tiruvaiyaru. I hesitated, because, we did not have money for the travel.

Kaleeshabi: I did not want to go because, our first son was very young and was with my mother as we were training at Kurnool and wanted to be with him.

Sheik: It was only our guru, who persuaded and took us with him at his own expense. We were listening to all senior musicians and veteran nadaswaram vidwans for four days. We were wondering if we could ever get a chance to pay homage to the saint, in our life time. On the last day, just before Anjaneya Utsavam (which is usually conducted to bring the curtains down), Clarinet A. K. C. Natarajan, the then secretary of the Aradhana Committee, asked us if we could play for ten minutes.

Kaleeshabi: We were thrilled, but we had not taken our instruments along with us to Thanjavur. But to our surprise, Sheik Chinnamoulana offered his instruments to us, saying that if AKC gave the slot for youngsters, he would lend his instruments.

Sheik: Sheik Chinnamoulana was kind enough to do that, because, normally, no musician would lend his or her instrument.

Kaleeshabi: We do not exchange our instruments among ourselves!

Both: Here, we have to mention Haridwaramangalam A. K .Palanivel and Tirivalaputtur T. S. Kaliamoorthy, senior Tavil vidwans, for supporting us on that day.    

Sheik Mahaboob Subhani and Kaleeshabi Mahaboob

So it was the beginning of your career together?
Sheik: The next day, our guru Chandramouli handed us over to Sheik Chinnamoulana for advanced training and he shaped our lives into whatever we are today. The next day, we were given an opportunity to play at a temple in Thanjavur, off the slot, where the veteran Thirumeignanam Nataraja Sundaram Pillai, gave time for us to play and started his concert late.

Was Sheik Chinnamoulana related to you?
Kaleeshabi: He was distantly related to me. But we were more closely related as guru-shishyas.

Did women play nadaswaram in those days?
Kaleeshabi: In my early days, Madurai Ponnuthayi was the only woman who was playing this instrument. But there was no difficulty for me to play in public because I was accompanying either my father or my uncle. People in Andhra Pradesh felt good that a young girl had taken up a difficult instrument. Even male nadaswaram and tavil vidwans accepted my playing the instrument.

How did the Muslim community react to it?
Sheik: You will be surprised to know that Prakasam, Guntur and Godavari districts in Andhra Pradesh have had many nadaswaram vidwans for generations. In my family, it is said that seven generations of nadaswaram vidwans are blessed by the local deity Munimandamma, who gave a Bhijaksharam to one of our forefathers. Even our guru Sheik Chinnamoulana hailed from Prakasam district.

Kaleeshabi: There were objections not to wear bindis and the like. But the solution came from within the family quoting Begum Parveen Sultana of Hindustani music. I was going to concerts without bindi. But at a concert in Salem, a Brahmin woman gave me kumkum and asked me to wear it in kutcheris. I continue the practice. Now, my family knows that if I step out in traditional Hindu attire, it is for a kutcheri. I play nadaswaram at Muslim weddings also but dressed traditionally as a Muslim woman.

When did you come to Tamilnadu and what made you settle down here?
Sheik: Sheik Chinnamoulana wanted us to learn the Thanjavur bani. He was inspired by T. N. Rajaratnam Pillai's playing and learnt the bani from Nachiarkoil Rajaduraikkannu Pillai. We stayed on with Chinnamoulana from 1983 till he died in 2000.

Kaleeshabi: By then we had toured all over Tamilnadu and learnt Tamil also. We chose to settle down because of the patronage and opportunities for this instrument in the state - in temples and sabhas.

How do people accept your playing in Hindu temples?
Sheik: There was no problem at all. Sheik Chinnamoulana was already accepted at temples. We were invited to play in temples in India as well as abroad. We are regulars at Adi Krithigai in the temples in Sri Lanka. We were accompanied by 'periya' tavils like Valayapatti Shanmugasundaram Pillai, Ceylon Ganesa Pillai, Ceylon Chinnaraja Pillai in temples.

We were taught that the paths may be different, but the goal is one, as far as religion and God are concerned. Now we realize it through our music.

Do you think nadaswaram enjoys the same status as it used to in the 50s and 60s?
Sheik: Not really. There used to be full-night concerts during festivals in temples. And every day, there used to be a nadaswaram concert lasting for not less than four hours. Nowadays, nadaswaram is played on the inauguration day as a ritual and rarely as a three hour concert, for reasons unknown. Maybe listeners are few.

Have you specialized in any particular aspect in playing the instrument?
Kaleeshabi: We play in the Thanjavur Bani, which is played the way songs are vocally sung. We play mallari in temples.

Tell us about your family?
Kaleeshabi: We have two daughters and a son. All are educated. Our daughters sing and son has learnt to play nadaswaram. We have not introduced our daughters to this instrument because we are not sure whether they would be encouraged like me, after they get married. I am lucky to have the support from my husband. No difference of opinion between us!

Sheik: This is the basis for our kutcheris that are liked by the audience. When you have difference, it reflects in the performance. The other nadaswaram sounds different. (laughs). If I was not taking up the instrument seriously, she was ready to give up and we both, planned to take up tailoring for earning the means, as we both knew the art. Kaleesha stitches our daughtersÕ dresses even today.

Before we close, I would like to share a recent event. We were invited to give a concert at the Rashtrapathi Bhavan, in front of President Abdul Kalam. After the concert, he asked us to take this music to the mentally retarded children, wherever we go for concerts. We have made a vow to give a free concert at such institutions ..

You can contact the Nadaswaram couple at: 3, Ram Nagar, Srirangam, Tiruchirapally - 620006. Ph: 0431 - 2230757

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