The flute is one of the oldest wind instruments. The bamboo flute, which is the most commonly used flute in South Indian classical music, is the best example of a nature-made instrument without detachable parts and a complicated mechanism. Flutes can also be made of ivory, sandalwood, ebony or metals such as silver and gold.
It is usually a simple cylindrical tube of uniform bore, closed at one end. Flutes vary in size from eight inches to two and one-half feet. The larger flutes have a deep, bass tone whereas the shorter ones are high-pitched. The South Indian flute is about fourteen inches in length and three quarters of an inch in diameter. The closed end may be naturally so, i.e. closed by a node of the stem or it may be artificially sealed with cork or a stopper. About three-quarters of an inch from the sealed end is bored the mouth- hole known as the Mukha randara. Besides the mouth-hole there are eight finger holes of uniform size in a straight line. The finger holes are slightly smaller than the mouth hole. The finger hole closest to the mouth-hole is called the Tara randara i.e. the hole which produces the highest pitch of all the holes. This is considered as the first hole and the rest are numbered in progression.
Playing position: The flute is held horizontally, normally to the player’s right, slightly inclined down wards, and played. The two thumbs hold the flute in place. The first three fingers of the left hand and the four fingers of the right hand are used to close the finger holes, one to seven respectively. The eighth finger hole is left open. Sound is produced by blowing air at an angle against the opposite edge of the mouth hole. The lower lip covers a part of the mouth hole. Variations in pitch are caused by altering the effective length of the air column as a result of the opening and closing of air holes. Semi-tones and quarter-tones can be produced by the partial opening and closing of the finger holes. The flute has a range of two and one-half octaves.
The Nagaswaram, which belongs to the woodwind family is known as a Mangala Vadya (lit. mangaIa means auspicious – vadya means instrument) since it is played in temples, processions, festivals and auspicious occasions like marriages, etc. The correct name, incidentally, is Nagaswaran and not Nadaswaram as incorrectly pronounced by some.
There are two varieties of Nagaswaram: Timiri, which is shorter (usually about one and one-half feet) and higher in pitch and Pari, which is longer (two to two and one-half feet) and lower in pitch.
It is a double reed instrument with a conical bore which gradually enlarges towards the lower end. It is usually made of a type of ebony. The top portion has a metal staple (called Mel Anaichu) into which is inserted a small metallic cylinder (called Kendai) which carries the mouthpiece which is made of reed. Besides spare reeds, a small ivory or horn needle is attached to the Nagaswaram. This needle is used to clear the mouthpiece of saliva particles and allows the free passage of air. A metallic bell (called Keezh anaichu) decorates the bottom.
The Nagaswaram has seven finger-holes. There are five additional holes drilled at the bottom which are used as controllers. The Nagaswaram, like the flute, has a range of two and one-half octaves and the system of fingering is also similar to that of the flute. But, unlike the flute, where semi and quarter tones are produced by the partial opening and closing of the finger holes, in the Nagaswaram they are produced by adjusting the pressure and strength of the air-flow into the pipe. Hence, it is a very exacting instrument. Also, due to its intense volume and strength, it is basically an outdoor instrument and much more suited for open spaces than for closed indoor concert situations.
The Nagaswaram group or Periya Melam, as it is often called, usually consists of the lead Nagaswaram player, the ottu, or drone, the tavil player and the Tala-keeper (a small pair of bronze cymbals.)
The Ottu is a drone instrument which is part of the Nagaswaram group. It resembles the Nagaswaram in shape and construction but is slightly longer. The player holds the reed at the upper end of the instrument in his mouth and blows into it to produce a single note which provides the drone for the Nagaswaram.
Besides all the existing South Indian instruments, the Twentieth Century has seen the introduction of several Western instruments into South India. These instruments have been adapted beautifully and mastered to play Karnatic music. Of these, the most commonly heard are Clarionet (also spelled “clarinet”), Mandolin, Saxophone and Guitar.
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