Brahma Sri Tiruchendur Appadurai Aiyengar – Karaharapriya – Athi

aiyengar1I’m very pleased to have cajoled another friend with a fine collection into producing an Excavated Shellac-only guest post. This week’s entry is from Rob Millis, co-producer of the museum-worthy Victrola Favorites release on the Dust-to-Digital label. Rob, along with his partner Jeffery Taylor, is also one-half of the experimental Climax Golden Twins (who have a new release on the Journal of Popular Noise). I’m excited that Rob chose to highlight a type of music I also find fascinating – if it is new to you, and I hope to most it will be, I believe you will find this special stuff. – JW

Recorded in May or June of 1908, this lovely piece is set in the kharahapriya rag with an 8 beat time cycle called athi. The performer is Brahma Sri Tiruchendur Appadurai Aiyengar (or Iyengar), a Carnatic (Southern) Indian classical musician of some renown in his time. Most likely recorded in Madras (present day Chennai), the performer was perhaps from – or employed in – the city of Tiruchendur, in the Southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, where Telugu is one of the primary languages. Tamil Nadu is the heart of Dravidian culture, and simply one of the most ancient places on Earth.

The jaltharangam, often written jalatarang, is an oddity. Meaning “water waves,” the jalatarang consists of small – often porcelain – bowls filled with water and struck with small – often bamboo – sticks. The bowls are arranged in front of the player in a semi-circle not unlike the tuned drums and gongs of Southeast Asia. The amount of water in each bowl determines the tuning (you can try this at home, kids). The jalatarang is mentioned in a 17th century Indian text, and under a slightly different name in even earlier texts (including the Kamasutra), where its mastery was considered one of the essential 64 arts to be learnt by women. The other 63 arts probably get more attention these days, but Alexander the Great is said to have taken jalatarang players back to Macedonia after his subcontinent sojourns which make this simple little instrument potentially over two thousand years old. Some call it, along with the rudra vina, the very oldest South Indian instrument. Rarely recorded, not given much credence by the stalwarts of Indian classical music, it has a crystalline, delicate, shimmering tone, making it an utterly ridiculous instrument to record in 1910. This was the era of acoustic recordings, when mid-range, volume, and voices like Caruso carried the day by simply (and effectively) shouting into a horn. But record it they did, those plucky English Gramophone Company employees, and thank heaven. Classical Indian music is generally improvisational and long form – taking as much time as the performers need to fully explore the raga and beat cycle. But they did what they could in the 78rpm era to provide a taste of this form. And old records such as this are often the only examples of nearly forgotten styles, performers, and ragas.

A beat up ancient record, found in a forgotten junk store in Tamil Nadu last year, about which I can find almost nothing. Who owned it? Who played it? How did it survive? It is like a venerable, wizened old monk. You have to work at listening to recordings like these and fill in the gaps with imagination. Plenty of crackle and hiss like London fog adds to the mystery. The shruti box, barely heard in the background, the drum, possibly a Mridangam (clay pot drum) practically blending in with the crackles and pops, and an ethereal melody in danger of being swallowed, drifting over the top, seeming to come out of thin air or down from the heavens…inscribed in the grooves as though by an angel…which actually was the logo at this time for the Gramophone Company before it adopted the more familiar faithful dog of His Master’s Voice fame. The label is gorgeous too, and wears its history well, as old – relatively – as the instrument it captures.

– Rob Millis

Brahma Sri Tiruchendur Appadurai Aiyengar – Karaharapriya – Athi

Technical Notes
Label: Gramophone Concert Record
Issue Number: G.C.-19455
Matrix Number: E 9274

13 thoughts on “Brahma Sri Tiruchendur Appadurai Aiyengar – Karaharapriya – Athi

  1. That is lovely! And a poetic description:

    “…a crystalline, delicate, shimmering tone, making it an utterly ridiculous instrument to record in 1910.”

    I’ll surely fit it in if we ever do an episode of our radio show for other weird instruments besides the accordion.

  2. Wow Rob… What a find. Can you guys put up more of this stuff from India? Or perhaps point me to a source of more of this kind of thing?

  3. Thank you, this is very interesting. I think the T in Brahma Sri T. Appadurai Iyengar is actually short for Tirunagari – he was a leading student of Anayampatti Subba Iyer (1881-1961) and the first jalatarangam master to be recorded. I don’t recognize the composition – anyone able to identify it?

  4. btw – the drum is definitely a Mridangam, the double headed Jackfruit wood and goatskin drum not to be confused with the Ghatam (a large clay pot).
    After 2 minutes a flute joins in, very faint but nice.

  5. this is a fine, delicate piece of music. thank you so much for posting it. the hiss and crack of the record just add volumes to the mystique. i love the fact that you got it in Tamil Nadu, as well, so the ocean had a great part in wearing this beauty down, too, i suppose. there is an excellent recording of Todi ragas played on a more popular (but just barely) cousin of this instrument, called a Tabla Tarang, which is laid out in the same fashion as the Jal Tarang, except with tuned tabla. it’s on Smithsonian Folkways, called “Tabla Tarang, Melody on Drums” by Kamalesh Maitra. i strongly recomment it. you can find it on i find it very interesting how there is a crossover of cultural music and otherwise from Southeast Asia to India, and back. Burma has a version of the Tabla Tarang (a little different) called Pat Waing. you can see really good examples of all three on youtube. especially the Jal Tarang. thank you again for posting this.

  6. Dear Rob,

    Just hearing this now and I’m absolutely knocked out by it….heard another example of this kind of music by Master Vyas on Secret Museum of Mankind Vol 5. which is for me, eclipsed by the offering you’ve placed here. Just so glad I got to listen to this incredible piece, it’s a true inspiration.

    Many thanks, Graham.

  7. just a clarification of fact; telegu is not spoken on the streets of tiruchendur, tamil is. telegu is the language spoken in modern andhra pradesh, and many, but by no means all, of the compositions of carnatic music from the 18 and 19th centuries from Thanjavur district in Tamil Nadu were in the language of the court, Telegu, so that could be the cause of confusion.

  8. Dear JW,
    Music lovers of India indebted a lot to you.I don’t hesitate to say we stupid Indians neglected such a master piece.
    Few lines to add some information.I could not notice a harmonium but from 2.00 to 2.20 noticed a feeble violin which faded away.The prime language at Tiruchendur will be Tamil and not Telugu.In south Indian tradition the sir names comes either ancestors belonging to that place,the profession they associated with or the family popular for etc.In this case either the artist or his ancestors roots are from Tiruchendur.Mridangam is a wooden drum with probably cow leather coverings at both ends.The earthen pot is called Ghatam.In this record it is Mridangam.The Jalatharangam though not much popular due to its difficulties and limitations it is not a rare or forgotten one.One can get quite some Jalatarangam CD/DVDs from an Indian musical stores in big cities.This record either a Raga or a composition is to be verified as in general for Raga elaboration,percussion accompaniment is not used.In all probability it must be a composition.I suggest to add “Jalatarangam by”to this title as it would be more specific and appropriate.

  9. Another small thing which i forgot in the previous post.In the title end instead of “Athi” it should be “Aadi Taala” or just “Aadi”.In Telugu “Athi” means more/over/excess etc.

  10. Some more relevant information on this record:The Telugu title reads as “Ma Madura Meenakshi”.This indicates it is a composition and whose composition it is to be find out for which i will try.This record is followed by second part to complete the concert as the record indicates as Part 1.The Tamil words on the white label reads as “Lord Siva be with us”(Courtesy by a Tamil friend).I am from India,Andhrapradesh and a “Telugu” with Middle level training in Karnatic music.

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