Tuesday, 9 April 2013

God's Own


The temple, the stage and the street; the sound of Gods and the sound of Man; in a collective ensemble and as a solo instrument, the Chenda straddles diverse worlds with ease. A glimpse into the life- journey of Chenda...

V Kaladharan 

Chenda, the indigenous percussion-instrument of Kerala, is singularly distinctive amongst a plethora of percussions all over the world commonly categorized under the title: Drums. Of the eighteen major musical instruments graded by the great practitioners of yore, Chenda has been treated as the foremost musical instrument in Kerala for depth and volume of the sound produced.

This hollow cylindrical drum is made of Jack-wood both surfaces of which are covered by cow-hides. Cotton ropes run through the leather-surface technically called vattom. The tightening and loosening of the ropes generate necessary tensions on the two faces of the instrument. The left-surface (edanthala) is the space of main discourse on the Chenda while the right-surface (valamthala) is played to add to the rhythm or to invoke moments of auspiciousness in the music of art forms like Kathakali.

Like other traditional musical instruments in vogue, Chenda came into being as part of the Hindu temple-rituals. For the poojas in all the major temples of Kerala, chenda is an inevitable component of a whole ensemble. Outside the sanctum-sanctorum but within the Nalambalam (the outer structure encircling the sanctum), Chenda reverberated probably dating back to 9th or 10th century. In a consistent process of evolution, Chenda progressed to three main genres; Melam, Thayambaka and Kathakali Melam.

For the collective ensemble, Melam, Chenda is the lead instrument heavily supported by the beats on the right-surface of the same instrument, the two wind instruments – Kuzhal (a clarinet-shaped instrument) and the kompu, a mini-trumpet besides pairs of huge cymbals. The helmsman of the Melam is called Pramani under whose direct and suggestive supervision the rest of the players acts and reacts. The key negotiation is between the Chenda and the Kuzhal in a Melam. The collectively blown Kompus signal the shifting of the tempos. Panchari, Pandi and Chembada are the three well-established Melams based on the time-beats of 6, 7 & 8 respectively. Melams performed in front of the caparisoned Elephants and the flames of traditional torches epitomize the grace and grammar of a collective endeavour. Individual artistry is least pronounced in any Melam. The Poorams (festivals) of Peruvanam, Arattupuzha, Thrissur and Kuttanalloor in Thrissur District are hubs of Melams in Kerala.

Thayambaka, the highly sophisticated solo performance on the Chenda, would have evolved as an offshoot of Melam as and when the gifted individual artists ventured to create a new medium which could express their inventiveness and imagination. The pre-eminence of Chenda in the different genres of temple-rituals and performing arts is the contribution of central Kerala comprising of the former Cochin State and the present Palakkad and Malappuram Districts.

Beginning with Mukham in Chembada tala (Aadi in Karnatic Music), the Thayamaka proceeds to the Pathikaalam (slow-tempo) in which the performer plays a couple of set ennams interspersed with lots of manodharam (improvisation). Following the nalamiratti (the crescendo of the Pathikaalam), Kooru, the piece de resistance of the Thayamaka recital starts. While the illustrious players belonging to west Palakkad do the Kooru in Panchari/Chemba (6 & 10 beats respectively), those hail from east Palakkad revel in Adantha ( Mishra chappu - 14 beats). While Malamakkavil Kesava Poduwal, Thiruvegappuram Rama Poduwal and Thrithala Kesava Poduwal championed the west Palakkad baani, those who held aloft the East Palakkad School include Thiruvilwamala Adantha Kontha Swamy, Pallassana Padmanabha Marar, Chethali Rama Marar and Pallavoor Appu Marar in the 20th century. After Kooru, there are three more segments viz. edavattom, edanila and irikita. The last one is in the fastest tempo in eka taala invoking a high amount of passion among the listeners. Nerkol (vertical falling of the stick at the center of the chenda) and urulukai (rotation of the wrists inward and outward) complement each other throughout the performance.

In the 17th century when Ramanattam came into being as a dance-theater tradition in south Kerala, Maddalam alone was its percussion-instrument. The provincial king of Vettathunadu (currently in the Malappuram District) introduced chenda in Ramanattam as the accompaniment of male-characters. When Ramanattam developed into Kathakali and afterwards, chenda grew into prominence as its aural signpost. Chenda supported by Maddalam commendably translates the navarasas on the Kathakali stage .Thiruvilwamala Venkichan Swamy, Moothamana Kesavan Namboodiri, Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Poduval and Kalamandalam Appukutty Poduval were the top icons of Kathakali Melam in the 20th century.

Before the beginning of the story per se in Kathakali, there is Melappadam in which the singers and the drummers (chenda & maddalam players) come together to create an aural feast. Manjuthara from Jayadeva’s Gitagovind, is a delicious treat by the Kathakali vocalists who employ their entire musical prowess to impress the audience. The two/four instrumentalists are also given tremendous opportunities in Melappadam to display their creativity. As soon the play begins, the instrumentalists are ‘sidelined’ for providing functional music.

In the decades subsequent to 1970, Chenda started seeking fresh spaces in the cultural landscape of Kerala. The seeds for the same lie in Keli, a combined performance of Chenda, maddalam, gongs and cymbals that preceded an overnight Kathakali recital in the traditional temples. Keli till the last decades of the last century was an effective medium of announcement of a Kathakali performance. The political and cultural institutions as well as the large and medium business-houses in Kerala are now widely employing small groups of percussionists for greeting VIPs/VVIPs and for the opening of Malls/Textile shops in the urban centres. Commercial films sometimes portray the sentimental conflicts surrounding a Chenda player caught up in family life. Film music has widely made use of the swaras of this musical instrument with fabulous effect. One of the erstwhile Movie Directors, A. Vincent even directed a film in Malayalam titled “Chenda”.

A revolutionary transition in the history of Chenda was heralded by the genre, Singari Melam. Barely a quarter century old innovation by one or more populist Chenda players, Singari Melam cuts across caste, community and religion in its practical applications. It is a non-liturgical branch of percussion-music carrying a secular image. Although Panchari is the taala used by the players, the drumming-pattern is irresistibly indigenous in nature and the players are dancers too. There is a near perfect synchronization between their footsteps/torso movements and the sounds generated on the Chendas. Equal number of men and women do Singari Melam. In the festivals held in the Catholic churches of Kottayam District, Singari Melam is an indispensable component. Ms. Katherine Morehouse, an ethno-musicologist from the US has done an interesting research on the democratic dimensions of this genre of music.

Mattannoor Sankarankutty, one of the few outstanding percussionists of the day, has successfully incorporated Chenda in the performance-structure of eastern and western percussion-instruments. With Mridangam, Tabla and Drums, Chenda is in harmony. As an independent solo instrument and as a powerful facilitator of aural emotions in performing arts like Kathakali, Chenda enjoys a rare privilege among scores of traditional musical instruments in India.

The writer is a bi-lingual writer, arts’ commentator and Assistant Registrar of Kerala Kalamandalam Deemed University







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