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Temple Musical Instruments of Kerala Hardcover – 1 Dec 2010
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One promising feature of the temple percussion arts is striking. Panchari and Pandi Melams, Panchavadyam and Thayampaka are at the same time classical and popular arts. One can convince oneself of this aspect by witnessing Thrissur, Peruvanam and Arattupuzha poorams and the festivals of Koodalmanikkam temple at Irinjalakkuda and the Purnathrayeesa temple at Trippunithura for example. The audience to the percussion ensembles in these places typically contains hundreds and in many cases even thousands of people. The reason is not far to seek. The temple musical performances are an integral part of life. They are inextricably entangled with human life, often refining and redefining the paradigm of values in a subtle way. The artistic performances have a profound infra layer of ritualistic sensibilities and are harmonically blended with the music and dances of the seasons of the year like spring, summer, autumn and winter. It is this deeper layer of sensibility which sustains these ritualistic-cum-classical arts against the devaluing and dehumanizing floods of mass media and consumerism now-a-days rampant everywhere, particularly in Kerala.
In general, the number of scholarly works on the temple musical instruments and percussion ensembles is deplorably small. For example, the book by Annamanada Parameswara Marar on Panchavadyam, the one by P.S. Warrier on Chenda Melam, that by A.S.N. Nambisan on rhythm and percussion ensembles of Kerala can be cited. Again more recent ones like The Temple Percussion Arts of Kerala by K.V. Rajagopalan Kidavu and the one exclusively on the Maddalam by Sankara Warrier can be mentioned. Maybe mention can also be made on the small book on the teaching of Thayampaka by Mulayankavu Aravindakshan. All these books have been written, reasonably though, in Malayalam, the native tongue of Kerala. The book under consideration here, namely, Temple Musical Instruments of Kerala written by L.S. Rajagopalan is perhaps the first one in English on a topic like this. Again the perspective is different. The scholarly discussion is focused on the individual temple musical instruments than on the percussion ensembles. Accordingly the individual chapters focus on the instruments Idakka, Ilathalam, Kurumkuzhal, Kombu, Chenda, Thimila, Mizhavu and Maddalam. Each chapter is in the form of a paper presented by the author in the annual conferences of the Madras Music Academy during its December festivals in successive years 1967-1980. There are five appendices respectively on Folk Music Instruments of Kerala, Rhythmic Instruments (Tala Vadyas) of Kerala, Ona Villu, a quaint loner in this field, Mannans and the Bhagavathy Pattu, Pulluvans and their snake worship.
As was the case elsewhere, the performing arts like music, dance etc. evolved in Kerala in connection with temple worship and as such these arts are intimately integrated with the life of the people. In this sense, the dichotomy of classical and popular arts loses much of its edge at least in the case of the temple musical instruments like Chenda, Maddalam, Thimila etc. Accordingly, Chenda is the most popular and classical of the percussion instruments of Kerala. As observed by LSR, Chenda is the symbol of any type of drumming instrument in Kerala. Chenda offers the beginners lesson (Ganapatikkai) in rhythm. A mastery over the Chenda can stand one in good stead in mastering other instruments like Thimila and Idakka. At the same time, Chenda is also the last word in Kerala rhythmic scenario, as is evidenced in the Thayampaka.
LSR makes very interesting observations which strike a very personal and intimate resonance with the reader. He observes that by pressing the barrel of the Idakka, tonal variations can be created. Again it is observed that Idakka is the only instrument which can create melody and rhythm. The author is enraptured by the rhythmic excellency of Panchavadyam so much so that he is placing it as the peak of the Kerala percussion ensemble. This is a debatable point. Panchavadyam is comparatively modern. LSR says that Chenda Melams involve beating of the same jathis without any improvisation. But then he seems to forget that these Chenda Melams have the rare ability to invoke the old-world charm of Kerala with all its variety, scenic beauty, myths and legends. Panchavadyam also has this capacity. But when it tries to strike a balance between classicism and romanticism, it develops architectural defects. Classical Chenda Melam has its distinct and primordial tone. Romantic Thayampaka has its own flavour, even though opposed to that of the Melams. Panchavadyam is a happy (and unhappy) compromise of both classicism and romanticism.
The typical jathi of a Thimila in Panchavadyam has been quoted as “Mrthyunjaya hara hara Sambho” emerging as it were from the instrument of Soorapadma. Another valuable observation in connection with Kurumkuzhal is worth quoting. LSR mentions that the holes drilled in the Kurumkuzhal correspond to the raga Harikambhoji. This raga is unique in that its janya ragas (derived melodies) like Sahana, Padi, Ghantaram, Paraneera, Kanakkurinji and Indalam are all famous Adidravida ragas (ragas of pure Dravidian origin) of Sopana Sangeetha. It can be pointed out that Kurumkuzhal can be identified as the only instrument which can be affiliated to the Sopana music of Kerala. Again LSR’s mention of the Swathi Tirunal Padam “Kamini Mani” played on the Kurumkuzhal in Poorvakamodari raga invokes an ambience of dreamy quality, when in good old days women used to dance in front of the temple deity in connection with vilakkacharam. Whether LSR’s contention is correct or not is a moot point. But the picture he invoked overflows with romanticism.
As an instrument, the one which is most ritualistic is Mizhavu which enjoys the processes of Samskaras (ritualistic purification) similar to a temple or to a Yaga Sala. LSR describes the ritualistic enrichment of the Mizhavu in all details. His years of exposure to the ancient theatre form, namely Koodiyattam certainly lend him authenticity in his observations.
If Chenda occupies pride of place in the hierarchy of the Kerala percussion instruments, Maddalam sounds the most colourful and spectacular. LSR observes that Thimila plays the leading role in Panchavadyam. But opinions differ and there is a strong group of proponents for the Maddalam. It may be recalled that the most prominent innovator in both Panchavadyam and Kathakali Melam was a Maddalam wizard, namely Thiruvilvamala Venkichan Swamy. LSR traces the minutest details of the three streams of Maddalam, namely Thoppi Maddalam, Veeramaddalam and Suddha Maddalam.
Kombu vadyam or simply Kombu as an instrument is best heard around Thrissur. Leave alone its military shade, Kombu signifies the exuberance of the spring season in Kerala, best proclaimed in the Panchari and Pandi Melams as well as in Panchavadyam. A village called Machattu in Thrissur district has its very identity realized in the playing of Kombu. LSR portrays the evolution of Kombu (both in Timiri and Bari varieties) and its current status in the hierarchy of temple musical instruments of Kerala.
Among the percussion instruments, Ilathalam keeps a low profile. It is the unsung hero. But LSR does not fail to sing its glory. Whether it be a Chenda Melam or Panchavadyam or Thayampaka or Keli or Kathakali Melam, Ilathalam is ubiquitous. One can not imagine any of these performances without Ilathalam. It plays a subdued role at the same time investing life into each and every programme. LSR aptly recognizes its charms.
In each chapter devoted to these eight instruments, Idakka, Chenda, Thimila, Maddalam, Mizhavu, Kombu, Kurumkuzhal and Ilathalam, the author also pays due attention to the training imparted under a guru. Often his observations and opinions can turn very much personal, but because of just that a unique ambience is created.
Inasmuch as the focus of attention is the musical instrument, the discussion gives even minute details of the construction of each instrument. Perhaps the training and experience of the author in Chemistry and Pharmaceutical Science seem to induce him to take delight in the accurate description of the fabrication and construction of the instrument. This aspect is one of the strong points of this book. Throughout the discussion, the author maintains an acute sense of inquisitiveness about the historical evolution of each of these instruments. He quotes profusely from classic works on musicology and literature in Sanskrit and Tamil — like Natyasastra, Sangita Ratnakaram, Chilappathikaram, Mahabharata etc. In his quest for the roots of evolution of each of the instruments, he proves that he is, even though not by training, but by temperament, a researcher in musicology besides being a connoisseur of the performing arts.
The book contains five appendices. Appendix A summarises the folk musical instruments. Appendix B on the Tala Vadyas of Kerala may look partially duplicating the earlier chapters. Appendices C, D and E, covering respectively the quaint Ona Villu, Mannans and their rituals on Bhagavathi and the serpent worship of Pulluvans are endowed with a poetic aura. The reader enjoys a feast of ideas centred on serpent groves, grove temples, powder portraits, Sopana music, wild ecstasy associated with serpent worship, the legendary characters of Chilappathikaram, Kummatti performance, the exotic melodies on the Pulluvan Veena and the esoteric rhythmic patterns produced on the Pulluvan Kutam etc.
Sangeet Natak Akademi and D.K. Printworld (P) Ltd as well as the editors A. Purushothaman and A. Harindranath have done a valuable service in getting these otherwise scattered articles in the book form. (Dr. T.N.Vasudevan)