The Music of Tamil Nadu

A version of this article was published in Le Monde d’Hermès in Spring 2008


The villages of Tamil Nadu are dense hives of activity strung out along the roadside, fed by the small plots of farmland that stretch across the plains from the Bay of Bengal to the mountainous Western Ghats.  In the dry season, the rich red earth envelopes the towns in clouds of dust, filling the air with the sharp, cool scent of iron; during the monsoon, the land swells with fertility and the humid air smells warm and intimate.

Since antiquity, this has been the land of empires: Chera, Chola, Pandya, each scattering Hindu temples like seeds across the earth.  With a pantheon of gods in thousands of incarnations, it is easy to be consumed by devotion and my first sighting of a Tamil town, approached from a distance, is always of the gopura: the high, rectangular tower of elaborately sculpted and sometimes gaudily colored gods that marks the entrance to a Hindu temple.  Within its chambers, half-naked Brahmin priests smeared with ash lead the faithful in chanting ancient texts.  It is a world of flames and shadows, the rough stone floor slick with oil and small pots of burning ghee.  But the clouds of red earth penetrate even the most inner sanctum and as I run my finger along a stone ledge I see that the dust leaves a circle of saffron on my fingertip, like the tikka placed on the forehead by a priest offering a blessing.

In the cities, by contrast, a kind of madness reigns.  On the streets of modern Chennai (once known as Madras) the gods look out benignly from their pedestals at major intersections, helpless in the face of the endless traffic.  In the symphony of the city, the percussion instruments have taken over: hands hitting car horns, brakes screeching, the pounding drill of construction.  Even the gods are in riotous competition: in the ancient neighborhood of Mylapore, small Hindu god statues guard the narrow, gridlocked lanes; in George Town, by the Bay of Bengal, it is Allah who is called upon to make music of disharmony; throughout, the careening rickshaws invoke Christ’s mercy on those in their way.  There is no discernible orchestration to the streets, no urban composition.  Chennai is a city that survives by improvisation, a jazz city that has lost its rhythm and descended into a cacophony of five million notes played at once.

My search for peace takes me to the southern outskirts of the city, a calmer place of low, whitewashed buildings where I can feel the salty air of the ocean long before I can see the beach.  Out on the sands, there are a few hopeful vendors offering modest entertainments: shoot a balloon and get a prize, one says.  But this is hallowed ground now: the tsunami swept lives from this beach in the thousands and even the young boys playing cricket and dreaming of an impossible, unreachable fame have not forgotten it.

Nearby, down a small lane, a woman awaits me dressed in a saree of the most brilliant lapis lazuli.  She is Kalpakam Swaminathan, a master of the seven-stringed veena, which is the sitar of south India.  She welcomes me in, then asks why I have come.  For harmony, I say.  She smiles and proceeds into another room, more modest than the first, offering me the lone chair.  I join her on the mat on the floor, where she holds an instrument nearly her own size.

The god Siva saw his voluptuous wife Parvati lying down and made the veena in her image, she explains, caressing the sensual curves of the instrument’s bulbous base.  She opens the small silver case where her late husband stored the leafs, powdered lime, and betel nut for making pan; now, she dabs fingers blackened with a lifetime of playing in small containers of coconut and sandalwood oils.  She curls her small arm around the instrument’s thick neck, aged fingers instinctively finding their place on the frets.  She looks at me and plucks a string to reveal the note.  The sound surprises me: it is deep and flat like a Western guitar.  She enjoys my confusion for a moment and then begins to play, just a few notes, and out comes India: the sinuous, metallic sound swirls through the air.  The movement of her fingers down the strings is so fluid that they soon disappear into a blur of motion; on her face, there is a look of complete serenity.  I close my eyes and I am again in one of the great temples, where the veena is played in veneration of the gods during the festivals that are the organizing rhythm of Tamil life.


Click here to see all of Sean’s blog posts about musicartIndia or South Asia.


Sean also shot the photographs for this article.  Click images below to view the tear sheets or here to see more of Sean’s photographs of India.