Light is brighter against a background of darkness, the ottu provides that background for melodies.
The ottu is an interesting instrument with a singular purpose, to provide the background for other instruments. Often played in Hindu temples, for festivals and at special occasions such as weddings, the ottu is an interesting and unique instrument.
What It Is
The ottu is a little-known member of the woodwind family that is native to the Carnatic music that comes out of southern India. Referred to as an otter by some, it is a double-reed wind instrument that is similar to the nagaswaram oboe. It is often used in conjunction with the nadaswaram to provide the drone accompaniment to that instrument.
The ottu is slightly longer than the nagaswaram but similar in construction. It has a long body, often made of rosewood, and a bell at the end that is made of either wood or metal like the shehnai. Unlike the nagaswaram, the holes in an ottu are not fingered during play but rather filled with wax to tune the instrument.
In a Carnatic ensemble, the ottu doesn’t play the melody but merely provides the drone sound that supports it. Thus, the ottu is essential for providing a background for the harmonic melodic line of the remaining instruments.
Although there are multiple spellings of the word Carnatic — Karnatak, Karnatic, etc. — it is a singular style of classical Hindu music that comes out of southern India. Unlike Hindustani music, Carnatic music was not influenced by the Iranian and Arabic invasions of the north and retained its links to ancient Hindu traditions.
Fewer instruments are used in Carnatic music and they are utilized in a way that is meant to mimic the vocal range of the human voice. As such, the ottu is an essential component of this form of music. Its ability to provide a low drone-like baritone sets the perfect backdrop for the higher-pitched chatter of other instruments.
The ottu of southern India has a long history in the music of the area. A staple to the classic sounds of Carnatic music, it provides a steady base for the melodies of that genre and several others.