Nattuvanaar is perhaps the most important person in a Bharatnatyam orchestra. Simply put the person who plays the nattuvangam is a nattuvanaar. However in reality it is so much more complex. Nattuvangam, also known as Thalam are a pair of metal alloy cymbals, one being flat, hard and base while the other being small, cup-shaped and shrill, which is basically a rhythm instrument to not only maintain the tempo but also to provide the harmony and highlight the nuances. It is relevant to understand nattuvanaar’s role, his place in a bharatnatyam recital, his qualities and also the actual techniques of playing the talams.
Texts on dance assign a definite place to the taladhari or the nattuvanar on a stage. The nattuvanar sits with the mridangist to his right and the singer to his left. While onstage he takes the place of the Guru and has to conduct the recital as well as control and coordinate with the other musicians of the orchestra. Most often the Guru and the nattuvanaar are usually the same person.
For conducting a recital successfully, a nattuvanaar must be well versed in the technical aspects of Bharatnatyam and its shastras and being able to able to recite the jatis and theermanams clearly and distinctly. His pronunciation (ucchharippu) must be perfect and he must have a keen sense of tala and laya. Improper speech or diction and poor sense of timing are certainly disqualifications for a nattuvanaar. The nattuvanaar must also know every little detail of the dances being performed so that he or she is able to guide the dancer in case she falters.
For coordinating with the entire orchestra, the nattuvanaar has to have a sound knowledge of music and a deep mature background of the intricacies of laya and tala. As a person who brings the entire recital together, above all, a nattuvanaar must have a pleasing personality to enhance the decorum of a recital.
This is only as far as the performance on the stage goes. Off stage too, the nattuvanaar has several responsibilities. Merely controlling a programme is not the end of it. The nattuvanaar must be creative as well. He must have the capacity to compose new items, to create intricate theermanams, to visualise new combinations of korvais, to select suitable songs for dance etc. There have been instances where nattuvanaars have also been Upadhyakaras, ie, those who are able to write lyrics, to set them to a musical melody (raga) and to a tala and can also compose dance to them. This very simply would make them choreographers too.
Thus, historically too nattuvanaars were very influential and important persons in the field of Bharatnatyam, as they were the masters of all aspects of the dance be it music, conducting, choreographing, composing, writing or presenting. Of primary importance is the fact that the word nattuvanaar and the word Guru be understood in the proper perspective. One cannot be confused for the other. A nattuvanar may or may not be the Guru of the dancer. He may just be a taladhari or a person who plays the cymbals. All Gurus must be taladharis but all taladharis need not necessarily be gurus. Although it has been traditionally advocated that the guru does the nattuvangam for his disciple, today we do have nattuvanaars who accompany artists who are not necessarily their students.