Sheik Chinna Moulana and the world of the nadaswaram.

By Kamala Ganesh 

“I was in Srirangam for a wedding. At four am, on the dark banks of the Kaveri, I was playing the nadaswaram, ceremonially accompanying the oiling of the bridegroom’s hair before his ritual bath. You see, in the Isai Velalar community, we play the nadaswaram at all the important rituals during weddings and temple ceremonies. That is our traditional occupation. From a nearby mandapam wafted the melodious sounds of another nadaswaram. The solitary figure in that quiet temple porch was Sheik Chinna Moulana, the grand old man of the nadaswaram. Such respect he commanded, so many awards and honours, and here he was diligently doing his early morning practice. My father, also my first guru, chided me. ‘You tire so quickly while practising. Look at him, at his age, doing ‘asura sadhakam’—practising with manic energy. This is a tough instrument to master, amma, you have to practise relentlessly,” reflects Kalyanapuram Srinivasan on his memories of Chinna Moulana. Srinivasan, who heads the Nadaswaram section of the Tamil Nadu Government Music College in Thiruvaiyaru, belongs to a hereditary nadaswaram-playing community. He first trained through the gurukulam system of immersive learning, living in the guru’s home, and later studied at Rajah’s College of Music, Thiruvaiyaru. Now he teaches in an institution where the pedagogic practice is based on modern training methods. He plays at local temple festivals, but also in concerts. In a way, he mirrors the transformations in this classical music system that started from the late 19th century.

The legendary artiste T. N. Rajarattinam Pillai (1898-1956) is foremost among those who enabled the nadaswaram to meet the challenges of this new era, as scholar Terada Yoshitaka details in his recent book, T.N. Rajarattinam Pillai: Charisma, Caste Rivalry and the Contested Past in South Indian Music (2023).

The succeeding generation that took these changes further included giants like Karukurichi Arunachalam, Gosaveedu Sheik Hassan, Ponnuthayi, Namagiripettai Krishnan, Vedaranyam Vedamurthy and Chinna Moulana. The birth centenary of the last three artistes is being celebrated all over South India this year.

My article outlines the context and current issues in the nadaswaram world. It then focuses on Sheik Chinna Moulana (1924-1999), a talented artiste who made a signal contribution to the form, structure and practice of nadaswaram. His unusual identity as the rare Muslim deeply engaged with a classical musical form embedded in the South Indian Hindu religious context offers some clues to the dynamic and syncretic exchanges between religion and the performing arts in South India.

Nagaswaram, popularly termed nadaswaram, is associated with auspicious domestic and temple related public ceremonies and known thus as mangala vadyam, steeped in the cultural ethos of southern India. A wind instrument somewhat similar to the shehnai, the pipe of this double reed aerophone is much longer, with an ebony body, finger holes and a rosewood bell at the distal end. The seevali, or reed piece, inserted into the top end is in contact with the artiste’s lips. The techniques of fingering, breathing and tonguing demand considerable physical stamina and skill. The nadaswaram used to be the centre piece of a performance ensemble of Carnatic music called Periya melam that also included thavil or percussion and other supporting instruments. The ensemble dates from the Vijayanagar period, though the instrument itself is older. There are descriptions of similar instruments in Sangam literature.

As in all social histories of people, institutions and things in India, there is a caste connection. Traditionally, nadaswaram and thavil players belonged to the Melakkarar caste in the Thanjavur region of Tamil Nadu, with hereditary rights of playing within temples and in processions of idols outside them and for various other auspicious domestic and public occasions. The women of the caste were custodians of the sadir dance form that eventually evolved into Bharatanatyam.

Even so, the nadaswaram ensemble was not entirely caste-driven, nor exclusive to Thanjavur. It flourished in the whole of South India, mainly under the patronage of temples. There were nadaswaram-playing communities from Maruttuvar, Nair, Pandaram and Mudaliyar castes too. There were also a few Muslims.

In the era of colonialism, social reform and nationalism, Carnatic music drifted out of temples and royal courts and moved to the proscenium stage. A new concert format evolved for a new audience. Vocalists, violinists, veena and mridangam players captured the mainstream concert space. Nadaswaram and thavil artistes were slow to change. They were indispensable for temple rituals; this gave them both income and social status. The nadaswaram had a piercingly loud quality, more suitable for open-air performances. Yoshitaka points out that the caste divide among Carnatic musicians started sharpening during this time, with Brahmins dominating the concert scenario and the non-Brahmin Isai Velalar relegated to the periphery. He frames this within the antagonisms created between Brahmins and non-Brahmins through the Dravidian nationalist movement.

The sidelining of the nadaswaram in the 20th-century concert scenario has been noted and criticised by several commentators. This, along with initiatives from nadaswaram artistes themselves, has started making a positive impact. Already from the time of Rajarattinam Pillai, modifications began to be made to the structure of the instrument, ensemble and musical style, making it more compatible with indoor venues. In the last two decades, urban sabhas have become more receptive to full-length concerts by individual nadaswaram artistes instead of confining them to music festival inaugurations. The Music Academy, Madras is holding a three-day festival dedicated exclusively to the nadaswaram soon—a sign of the times. The growth of Government-funded music colleges with nadaswaram departments has opened the doors for heavily subsidised training for students from all strata of society, regardless of caste, religion or gender. A critical evaluation of these changes, especially on whether institutional education matches the earlier gurukulam system in access and quality, is part of the contemporary debate.

In the history of the nadaswaram, Chinna Moulana holds a unique position not only as a superlative performer but as an outsider who achieved national and international fame. A Telugu-speaking Muslim migrant from Andhra, he succeeded in a field dominated by the Isai Velalar of the Thanjavur region with their ancient lineage. He was born in Karavadi, a village in Prakasam district, in a traditional nadaswaram-playing family. For three centuries, they have had the hereditary right of playing at the local Rama temple, given to them by a local zamindar through a manyam or land grant. Chinna Moulana’s grandsons Sheik Kasim and Sheik Babu, distinguished nadaswaram artistes themselves, have meticulously preserved these historical documents. Chinna Moulana started learning the nadaswaram from his father Sheik Kasim Sahib and later moved into the gurukulam of the well-respected Sheik Adam Sahib at Chilakaluripet in adjoining Palnad district for a few years. From childhood, Chinna Moulana had been captivated by the music of Rajarattinam Pillai, and in the early 1950s, he moved to Kumbakonam hoping to polish his style by learning from him. Rajarattinam Pillai, at the peak of his illustrious career, was too busy. Chinna Moulana joined the gurukulam of Rajam Pillai and Duraikkannu Pillai at Nachiyar Koil (Thirunarayur Nambi Temple) near Kumbakonam and studied there for eight years. Duraikkannu Pillai’s style was close to that of Rajarattinam Pillai. Chinna Moulana eventually settled down in Srirangam. He rapidly achieved recognition and distinction in India and internationally and was honoured with the Sangita Kalanidhi from the Music Academy, Madras; Padma Shri; Sangeet Natak Akademi award, among numerous others. He was Asthana vidwan at Tirupati and Srirangam temples and at the Sringeri Shankara Mutt. In 1964, he established the Saradha Nadhaswara Sangeetha Ashram, a gurukulam for students. His grandsons have established the Sheik Chinna Moulana Trust for supporting nadaswaram students and artistes.

Chinna Moulana’s inherent talent and thirst for innovation and his integration of the styles from Chilakaluripet and Thanjavur gave a special edge to his music. A signature feature was his elaborate alapana built on a broad foundation. His improvisation of musical phrases (briga) to embellish the main melody with high speed, appropriate gait and weight, were dazzling displays of skill and creativity. Yet each note would be enunciated, clear and pure. He was particular about learning the sahitya or text of the compositions, whether they were in Telugu, Tamil or Sanskrit. His playing resembled vocal music, what in Hindustani music is called gayaki ang. Chinna Moulana was influenced by Hindustani music and was close musically and personally to Bismillah Khan.

Remarkably, Chinna Moulana was a practising Muslim, keeping up the minimum requirements of Islam. But he was also an ardent devotee of Srirangam’s presiding deity Ranganatha. His ishta devata (chosen deity) was Rama, in his native Karavadi temple. There are stories galore of his religious piety. Grandson Kasim, who accompanied him to Varanasi, remembers him chalking out their itinerary, “First Ganga snanam, next darsanam of Kashi Vishwanatha and then Bismillah Khan’s house.” Eminent musicologist Dr. Rama Kausalya recollects his visits to the Tamil Nadu Government Music College in Thiruvaiyaru where she was Principal. He would come by with a tulsi leaf tucked behind his ear, after praying at Saint Tyagaraja’s samadhi nearby. Not that Chinna Moulana escaped the challenges of being accepted, both by the nadaswaram community and his jamath. He belonged to a profession steeped in the sacred domain of Hinduism, replete with the worship of idols of gods and goddesses. But his was not a solitary case. He had a community behind him anchored in a historical ethos of accommodation and exchange.

Chinna Moulana belonged to a community of Telugu-speaking Muslim nadaswaram artistes from Guntur, Nellore, Vijayawada, Ongole and elsewhere in Andhra and Telengana. These families are hereditarily connected with various local temples. Although many younger members pursue other professions, in every family there are at least a few who continue to learn and play the nadaswaram. Kasim estimates that there may be a thousand such families, including the few who migrated to Tamil Nadu, which constitute an endogamous universe within which, following the South Indian custom, marriages between cross cousins and between maternal uncle and niece are common. Endogamy and a hereditary prestigious occupation together created a tight sub-caste of sorts, enabling a dual religious identity to co-exist.

Kasim and Babu have kept up the lifestyle of their grandfather—largely Tamilised and Hinduised. During concerts, they are dressed in the conventional Isai Velalar style, which is also followed in the mode of speech, customs and festivals at home. N. R. P Ravichandran, a traditional nadaswaram artiste and a close associate of Kasim and Babu, mentions the similarities in habits and practices, “They visit Hindu places of pilgrimage, have elaborate pujas at home, are particular about astrological calculations like rahu kalam. The women wear veil only for jamath activities. I have played at their family weddings. A moulvi is present for the nikah, but the rest of the ceremonies are like other Tamil Hindu weddings.”


Yet another Telugu Muslim family in Tamil Nadu that has made a mark in nadaswaram is the couple Sheik Mahaboob Subhani, his wife Kaleeshabi Mahaboob and their son Ferose. They are the eighth and ninth generations of players in their family, and are originally from Satuluru in the Guntur district, where they learnt from illustrious gurus like Sheik Chinna Peer Sahib and Sheik Jaan Sahib. They too migrated to Srirangam in the 1980s and became disciples of Chinna Moulana. Kaleeshabi is the first Muslim woman to play the nadasawaram on public platforms. The Subhani family has won accolades and awards in India and abroad. Their lifestyles are also considerably Hinduised, with strong Telugu roots.


There are others in Andhra Pradesh who are lesser known but reflect the same broad features of connection to temples and intermingling of Hindu and Muslim identities. They remain as a shining example of the plural, syncretic cultural fabric of the traditional performing arts in India.


Dr. Kamala Ganesh is an eminent sociologist based in Mumbai. She is a student of Carnatic music and has written on it for the Economic and Political Weekly. She has edited the book Jafferkhani Baaj: Innovation in Sitar Music by sitar maestro Abdul Halim Jaffer Khan. She is currently working on the theme of syncretic traditions in the performing arts in India.


This article was originally published in the April 2024 issue of the On Stage.