By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Friday, January 4, 2013

Awesome Kerala Drums In Authentic Delhi Setting

While making an extended review of the high-decibel Kerala temple-drums festival in New Delhi  --  which I had mentioned a couple of days ago (Jan. 2)  --  I took the opportunity to make a significant comment on the extent of artificiality or authenticity in re-enacting rustic folk arts in an alien environment, or even in unusual urban settings within the same country:

THE HINDU, New Delhi
15 May 1987

A treat for folk-art lovers

Following the successful Festivals of India in France and America, which intensified our interest in our own many-sided cultural heritage, there has been a tremendous spurt in the organized efforts to present the folk arts of India in the Capital.
During the last autumn and winter seasons this became such a voluminous and hectic enterprise that it was difficult to keep track of all such events which were taking place simultaneously or in quick succession all over Delhi.  There's a respite now, but we can be sure that the activity will be resumed as soon as the summer and the rainy season are over.
Authentic or artificial?
We must appreciate that the various agencies involved in this context do generally seem to be conscious of the need to create an appropriate environment for our folk arts to be performed, so that the events have an appearance of authenticity.  The settings arranged on the Rabindra Bhavan lawns and some other locations in the city do have the merit of being picturesque and close to Nature.
But no matter how earnestly one might try, it's impossible to get away from the fact such performances in unrelated venues have an inevitable element of artificiality built into them.  The true flavour of a rustic folk tradition can never be completely transplanted from its usual setting to a strange or contrived milieu.

It's equally true that when an event in a metropolitan city does not merely seek to present a rural/ethnic art form  --   but primarily aims to create the entire environment in which it normally flourishes  --  then we do get a fine view of the art in its absolutely pure condition.
In unaccustomed surroundings,  it's precisely when folk arts are not presented for their own sake  --  but constitute a subsidiary element in a comprehensive social or religious activity  --  that they remain absolutely true to their character and retain their subtle nuances in totoIn major cities, such situations generally arise in religious contexts, when music often figures as an integral part of the rituals, and not essentially as a form of entertainment.

These were the thoughts which kept crossing my mind as I stood in the premises of the Ayyappan Temple in R.K. Puram on several days in the last two weeks , absorbing the tumultuous sounds of the temple drums from Kerala, during the elaborate religious festival organized by the Ayyappan Pooja Samithi.
Subtle thunder
In this column last week I had described the nature of the marathon performances by the percussion ensemble invited from Kerala for this occasion.  During the last week-end the team was reinforced with the arrival of a dozen more artists, including the group's leader and teacher, Krishna Poduval, who's a supreme exponent of the drum called chenda.  He led several memorable sessions of 'Taayambaka' (featuring five chendas and three pairs of cymbals). The Pancha-Vaaddyam group was also strengthened, to include five thimilas, three curved horns, and four pairs of cymbals  --  a formidable configuration!
Day after day (and night after night) the worshipful environment in the temple resounded with the thundering (and yet subtle) sounds of these powerful instruments.  How far these exercises in percussion are part of the religious rituals can be judged from the fact that during certain sessions called 'Pani' (held inside the shrine, and not in the open air), the chief percussionist actually acquires the status of the high priest, and simulates on the drums the sacred verses which are chanted. 
Undoubtedly, the memory of this festival will be a strong one.  For a long time to come, one is bound to recall vividly the tremendous spiritual élan generated among the devotees by the dazzling drums of Kerala.

Postscript, 2013
Oh yes, the memory of that occasion does haunt me still,  like some superior sessions of this fascinating art in Kerala itself !   Those days we had to wait for years to repeat the visual experiences, and even audio recordings were rare.  Things are quite different today, of course, and you can instantly transport yourself to the most authentic venues just by clicking any of the following links on YouTube, and exploring many other related videos: 

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