Never faced discrimination based on religion: Nadhaswaram playing Muslim couple

By Venkatachari Jagannathan
Chennai, Oct 19 : They are the first nadhaswaram playing Muslim couple to be selected for the Padma Shri award. And perhaps they are the first husband and wife to be selected for the Padma Shri award.

The Central government’s decision to select them for the award earlier this year came as a pleasant shock and surprise for this Srirangam-based couple.

“We thought we had to go some more miles to aspire for the Padma awards,” 64-year old Sheik Mahaboob Subhani told IANS.

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Nadhaswaram is a double reed wind instrument that is used as a traditional classical instrument in south India. It is played at weddings, temples as well as in music sabhas.

Nadhaswaram and thavil – a percussion instrument – are part of temple festivals, wedding and other auspicious occasions in south India.

The Muslim couple hailing from a family of nadhaswaram artistes has played nadhaswaram in several Hindu temples in south India.

The Subhanis categorically said that they have never faced any religious discrimination in Tamil Nadu or in other states.

“We don’t foresee such a thing happening in the future. It should be noted that it was the BJP government at the Centre that decided to award us with the Padma Shri title. We are extremely happy. After more than two decades, a nadhaswaram artiste has been selected for the prestigious award. The award was possible mainly due to the cooperation of fellow musicians,” Subhani said.

The most famous Muslim nadhaswaram artiste was Padma Shri late Sheik Chinna Moulana, who also hailed from a family of nadhaswaram artistes.

Subhani said that he and his wife Kaleeshabi Mahaboob were the first couple to get the Tamil Nadu government’s Kalaimamani award given for excellence in the field of art and literature.

True to the saying ‘there’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip’, the couple has been savouring the Padma Shri award news since January 2020.

The Covid-19 pandemic and the resultant nationwide lockdown has prevented them from receiving the prestigious award.

“Earlier we were told that the Padma Shri award ceremony will be held on March 26, but the coronavirus outbreak spoilt that. We think the award ceremony may be held soon,” Subhani said.

Has their star status and market value shot up after the announcement of the Padma Shri award?

“There was no market at all after that. So there is no question of increased market value,” Kaleeshabi Mahaboob told IANS.

The nadhaswaram and thavil artistes earn their livelihood by performing in weddings, temples, sabhas, television and radio stations.

Owing to the lockdown, a lot of programmes/music assignments they had accepted got cancelled or postponed.

“In March we had recorded at Doordarshan. The programme was relayed on Tamil New Year’s Day. Four months after the lockdown we performed at a wedding in August. There is one wedding in November. Many programmes in Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh got cancelled,” Subhani said.

With the government specifying the maximum number of persons who can attend a wedding, one of the casualties were the nadhaswaram and thavil artistes.

The nadhaswaram artistes would normally get one or two programmes during the Navarathri festival, but this time there were no calls.

“Similarly, during the November/December music season in Chennai, we get a couple of programmes. We don’t know what would happen to the music season this year,” Subhani said.

“We dipped into our savings to manage the lockdown days,” Kaleeshabi Mahaboob said.

“There are many unfortunate artistes who are finding it difficult to make the ends meet. Owing to their shy nature, the artistes will not ask for help. The government has to help them as nadhaswaram and thavil are played only in the south,” Subhani said.

The positive point the lockdown provided them was the time which they utilised practicing new lines, listening to other famous musicians and sharpening their skills further.

The couple was originally from Andhra Pradesh and had settled in Tamil Nadu in 1980s.

“We are an eighth generation of nadhaswaram artistes. My father, grandfather and their forefathers were nadhaswaram artistes. Same is the case with my cousin turned wife,” Subhani said.

He learnt to play the instrument first from his father Kothapalli Sheik Meera Sahib and later from his wife’s paternal uncle Sheik John Sahib.

“My husband supported me to perform in public,” Kaleeshabi Mahaboob said.

Later the couple got trained in Carnatic vocal from K. Chandramouli, principal, Government Sarada Sangeetha Kalasala in Kurnool, Andhra Pradesh.

After settling in Uraiyur in Tamil Nadu, the Subhanis learnt under the famous Sheik Chinna Moulana.

“Even before our wedding, we had performed together at a marriage function in Dindigul in Tamil Nadu,” she said.

The two got married in 1977 and started their musical journey together.

Curiously, the first public performance of the couple happened in Thiruvaiyaru, considered to be among the most sacred places for Carnatic musicians.

It was at Thiruvaiyaru that saint composer Thyagaraja composed several devotional songs, mostly in praise of Lord Ram, and his samadhi is located there. A large number of Carnatic musicians regularly come and sing during the Thyagaraja Aradhana festival.

Recalling that performance with reverence, Subhani said: “Our teacher Chandramouli took us to Thiruvaiyaru where he got the permission for us to play for 10 minutes.”

“It was Sheik Chinna Moulana who gave his nadhaswaram to us to play there as we hadn’t taken our instruments. Instead of 10 minutes, we played for nearly 40 minutes,” Subhani said.

Soon the couple decided to settle down in Uraiyur in Tiruchirappalli so that they could look for chances to perform in Tamil Nadu.

The talented couple soon got going with their performances, and at the Tiruchirappalli All India Radio, they graduated from B Grade to the top-grade artiste level.

In 1994, they received the Kalaimamani Award from the Tamil Nadu government and in 2017 the Hamsa Kala Ratna award from Andhra Pradesh government.

The couple has also released a few albums.

The duo has performed in Abu Dhabi, Belgium, Canada, Dubai, France, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, the US and the UK.

Life was chugging along comfortably for the couple with three children.

“I used to perform even when I was nine months pregnant. I was back in the circuit one month after my delivery,” Kaleeshabi Mahaboob laughed.

According to Subhani, the meeting with late President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was an unforgettable moment in their lives.

“In 2005, we gave a performance at the Malai Mandir in Delhi. We had expressed our wish to meet the then President Abdul Kalam to former President R. Venkataraman who was the Chairman of the temple. Soon we got the permission to meet Kalam,” Subhani said.

At the Rashtrapathi Bhavan, the couple performed for about two hours. Interacting with them, Kalam, among other things, told them that he can play the veena.

“Kalam requested us to play at the schools for mentally challenged children as they will not normally get a chance to attend music programmes. As requested by Kalam, we played at some schools for mentally challenged children for free. Later we got a letter from Kalam thanking us. But some schools were not receptive to the idea,” Subhani said.

Interestingly, it was Kalam who had convinced the nadhaswaram couple’s son Ferose Babu to carry on the family’s tradition of being a musician, rather than getting into the computer field.

“I have seen my parents struggle and wanted to work in a software company after my MCA. My mother requested me to carry on the family tradition. With my wife being agreeable, I decided to quit my job and start my music training all over again,” Babu had told IANS earlier.

“Kalam said there will be hundreds of MCA degree holders but there cannot be a musical family with such a rich tradition,” Babu recalled.

Now the tenth generation is also seeming to be getting ready to carry on the family tradition as Subhani’s grandson sings along with them when they practice.

“It is said in our family that one of great grandfathers was blessed by the village goddess, saying that for seven generations music will reign in the family,” Subhani recalled.

Belonging to the eighth generation, Subhani had gone to that village in Andhra Pradesh and sought the goddess’ blessings.

Subhani is also worried about the future of the nadhaswaram artistes with the changing tastes.

“While the number of Carnatic music artistes are growing, the number of listeners is more or less stagnant or going down. There should be more innovations in formats and other aspects,” M. Ramesh, a Carnatic music critic, told IANS.

“Normally nadhaswaram is not played along with a vocalist. But Carnatic vocalist T.M. Krishna did a programme with me and my wife playing nadhaswaram along with violin, mridangam and kanchira. The programme turned out well,” Subhani said.

(Venkatachari Jagannathan can be contacted at


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