Thavil (or Mealam), is a cylindrical shaped instrument of ancient Tamil origin. Traditionally the Thavil, often accompanying the Nathaswaram, are essential and used extensively at temples, folk music, carnatic concerts and other auspicious events such as weddings.
The cylindrical shell of the Thavil is hollowed out from a single block of Jackfruit wood which is about 16 inches in length and has a diameter of about 13.5 inches.
The wood left to season for several years before the drum is constructed. Layers of animal skin are stretched across hoops traditionally made of hemp (a fibrous plant) and attached the two sides of the shell using hemp straps (Naar).
The smaller left face of the instrument consists of goat skin stretched loosely over the hoop (Valai)and has a black paste (similar to Soru or Saatham) applied on the inner side to produce a more low flexible pitch (bass) sound. The larger right face of the instrument consists of water buffalo skin stretched very tightly over the hoop (Valai) to produces a more high pitch (treble) sound.
In modern days the inner part of the hoop and the straps are both made of stainless steel. The hoop is given hemp finish to resemble pure hemp rings whereas the straps are left as they are. The straps traditionally went across the barrel connecting both the left and right head but modern Thavil has a round metal ring attached to the centre of the barrel on which the straps are attached via bolt and nut mechanism. This allows for easy tuning of the instrument.
The instrument is either played while sitting, or hung by a cloth strap, called Nadai, from the shoulder of the player.
The right head is played with the right hand, palm, wrist and fingers. The player usually wears caps, called Koodu, on all the fingers of the right hand, made of hardened paper mache with glue made from wheat (Mmaida/Atta) flour. Modern finger caps are also made from very fine cement type material. The left head is played with a short, thick stick (Kutchi) usually made from the wood of the Portia (Poovarasam) tree. Other hard woods such as Jackfruit wood, Rosewood etc can also be used.
It is not uncommon for left-handed players to use the opposite hands. Some Nathaswaram groups feature both a right- and a left-handed Thavil player. The two heads, however, are still known by its common name (i.e. as it would be for a right-handed player).
In folk music contexts, a long thin stick made of bamboo is sometimes used on the right head. Thanjavur is most famous for the Thavil, which is said to have originated there millennia’s ago.