This year, Padma Shri, one of the highest civilian awards, has been bestowed on Sheik Mahaboob Subhani and his wife Kaleesha Mahaboob, exponents of Nagaswaram . As much as the award recognizes their talent, it recognizes nagaswaram music as a whole.
Sheik Mahaboob Subhani and Kaleesha Mahaboob are the eighth generation vidwans of nagaswaram music and the gift has been passed on to the next generation as their son Feroze Babu has been pursuing nagaswaram.
The couple is grateful to former president A P J Abdul Kalam who advised Babu, an MCA graduate, to take up nagaswaram. There are thousands pursuing computers but only a few in nagaswaram, Kalam told Babu, the couple recalled.
Subhani and Kaleesha won the Tamil Nadu government’s Kalaimamani award in 1994 while the Andhra Pradesh government honoured them with Kala Ratna (Hamsa) award in 2017. The couple has performed in many countries namely Belgium, UAE, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, Malaysia, Sri Lanka, United States and England.
Elaborating their overseas experience of performing, Subhani and Kaleesha said that the audience there is not used to instruments like nagaswaram. They are more tuned to western music. Things like alapanai and keerthanai don’t work well. But the NRIs are keen to learn Indian music. “We often see at least one from every NRI family learning Carnatic music or instruments. We may not find nagaswaram widely but there are facilities to learn instruments like veena, violin and Carnatic singing. It is a good sign,” they said.
Subhani is proud of his wife and her skill in nagaswaram. They were married on Dec. 1, 1977. He was hesitant a bit but family and friends suggested that they would make a great couple. They said duet playing would be ideal and it worked out well, Subhani recalled.
Kaleesha had a strong foundation in nagaswaram. Her grandfather, Janab Sheik Chinna Peer Saheb was instrumental in bringing her to the field. Saheb has won the Andhra government’s award in nagaswaram. She was thoroughly trained by her uncle Sheik Jan Saheb. He had trained her in 25 varnams and kritis. Kaleesha did not pursue her education beyond primary school as she was fully absorbed in nagaswaram. She is a leader among women nagaswaram artistes.
Kaleesha’s uncle and grandfather had studied music with Sheik Chinna Maulana Saheb. The couple was later mentored by Sheik Chinna Maulana Saheb. They remember their guru fondly. He facilitated their playing at the Thiruvaiyaru Music festival. Not only did he get them permission, but he also offered them his instrument for the concert. Among the many ragas he taught, Subhani and Kaleesha single out kapi. “There will be a special place for Kapi in our concerts. This particular raga is so intrinsic to our performance,” says Subhani.
The couple performed Raga Kapi with Carnatic singer TM Krishna. While Krishna sang the taga, Subhani and Kaleesha accompanied by Akkarai Subbulakshmi on the violin mesmerized the audience with Kapi. The performance was a zenith and earned them a lot of praise.
The couple resides at Uraiyur in Tamil Nadu. They say they live there because they are asked more often to play at concerts in the region. Subhani and Kaleesha are not interested in individual performances but prefer to play the instrument together. They also don’t like playing cinema songs on stage. If the audience insists, they would play songs like Singaravelane from Konjum Salangai or Nalamthana from Thillana Mohanambal or some good songs from TMS or Seerkazhi. “But, we don’t underestimate the cine music or the creativity behind it,” Subhani is swift to add.
Commenting on some nagaswaram vidwans replacing thavil with mridangam, the couple say these are exceptions. Nagaswaram and thavil are like a nuptial knot, the couple say.
Do they explore other instruments? Nagaswaram itself is like an ocean, they say.
They practice a particular raga or krithi as “vaipattu” (singing) first and practice the same in nagaswaram after gaining confidence. Subhani demonstrates ‘Nagumomo ganaleni’ as an example.
Inmathi was media partner in the Navaratri Nava Shakti series by the Parivadini Trust on women nagaswaram players