Pushparani Thiruchelvam is one of the two woman thavil players in Jaffna, and perhaps in the whole of Sri Lanka. The two women, who were the first and could well be the last, are both above 60 and neither of them has had a woman student to carry on the tradition in the female line.
“There is resistance to the idea of girls learning to play the thavil or even the nadaswaram in Jaffna,“ said Pushparani (63). “It is a difficult instrument to play, and is also very heavy, about 20 kg. Weight becomes an issue when one is called upon to play at temple processions when you have to play either standing or walking, with the instrument tied around one’s shoulders,” she explained.
But according to Prof N Shanmugalingam, Carnatic vocalist, sociologist and former vice-chancellor of Jaffna University, there is more to it than weight. “Female fingers are not suitable for playing thavil, which has to be struck hard. More importantly, there are social constraints to women taking to the nadaswaram and thavil,” he pointed out.
In Jaffna, as in India, nadaswaram and thavil players come from a particular tiny community, and the art is passed from generation to generation. Pushparani herself comes from such a family. Her father, Kuttalingam Manikkam, was a famous nadaswaram player, and her elder sister, Rajeshwary Suntharalingam (65), plays the nadaswaram. Their husbands are keen on continuing the family tradition.
“Jaffna society accepts women taking to the softer veena, violin, or even flute, but not the robust and loud nadaswaram and thavil, which are indentified for men,” said Dushiyanthini Kanakasabapathipillai, a music fan. “For natural reasons, women players are not available for playing in temples all the time, and temple pujas and festivals are the mainstay for nadaswaram and thavil players in Jaffna,” added Shanmugalingam.
However, Pushparani and Rajeshwary get enough opportunities to make a living out of their instruments including weddings and even events overseas.