By M.V.Ramakrishnan

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Tumultuous Temple Drums Of SW India

Talking about the character and scope of the powerful South Indian wind and percussion instruments naagaswaram and thavil (Dec. 29/31), I had mentioned three specific occasions marking a timespan of nearly 40 years  --   a soulful cameo in a Hindu temple in Madras (2009), a hillside concert in a New Delhi temple in 1986,  and a performance in a Madras concert hall in 1971.   Now let me take you back to New Delhi, to witness a high-decibel drums festival in another Hindu temple in 1987.
By the way, 'South-West India' is not an expression actually used in any context I know of,  though it sounds so familiar.   Strictly speaking, the term should denote all the four States on the West coast of India.  But we Indians are inclined to think of  Gujarat, Maharashtra and Goa as Western India  --  and if we are asked to define 'SW India' in a quiz program, our instant response is likely to be  just "Kerala!"

THE HINDU, New Delhi
8 May 1987
Dazzling drums from Kerala

"Jhillam padapada....   jhillam padapada....  
Pappada jhillam....  jhillam padapada...."

That's the popular way of vocalizing the sounds of the rustic temple drums and cymbals of Kerala, which rend the air day and night in the State's villages and towns on all festive and religious occasions.

Last Saturday night, a percussion ensemble from Kerala was seen and heard at the Ayyappan Temple in R.K. Puram, playing the 'Pancha-Vaaddyam'  for an hour, in the fortnight-long anniversary celebrations of the temple, which will go on till next Tuesday.

The Pancha-Vaaddyam is an open-air exercise by five instruments  --  thimila, a long vertical drum and maddalam, a large horizontal drum, both of which are played with the drummer's palms and fingers;   edakka, a small drum played with a stick;   kombu, a curved horn;   and elatthaalam, a pair of cymbals made of bronze.   A booming sound in the background is provided by a conch, which is called sangu.

More than one instrument of the same kind may be featured in the combination.  For instance, the group which performed at this venue used two thimilas and two pairs of cymbals.  The diverse percussive effects created by striking the hard or soft leather surfaces of the drums merge with the metallic clang of the cymbals, to produce a formidable battery of sounds.

There's another important percussion instrument of Kerala called chenda --  a medium-sized vertical drum which is played with a couple of curved wooden sticks (or with a stick and one hand), producing a variety of sharp sounds.  The instrument is widely used in all routine temple drumming, but usually it finds no place in an exclusive Pancha-Vaaddyam recital.

But whatever its status may be in the Pancha-Vaaddyam, the chenda is the sole instrument used in another kind of performance called 'Thaayambaka'  --  in this event, there's a main chenda known as tani-layam (solo rhythm) which is supported by two chendas on the sides and two more in the background. 

A third type of percussion recital of an allied nature is the 'Panchaari Melam', in which the musicians play the chenda, the curved horn, the cymbals and a short pipe known as kurunkuzhal,  which almost sounds like the naagaswaram.
In the course of the ongoing festival at the Ayyappan Temple, all these types of performances are being presented, apart from Kathakali dances and other cultural events.

My visit to the venue last Saturday gave me a rare musical experience.  I hadn't heard a Pancha-Vaadyam recital for ages;  the last occasion was in 1969 or '70, when I had stood on the lawns of the Kalakshetra in Madras and listened to the performance of a guest team from Kerala.  Vivid memories of this and many other pastoral settings came flooding into my mind as I heard the arresting sound of the authentic band.

Inside a crowded semi-open-air section of the temple stood a small decorated elephant, right in front of the percussionists who were pulverizing the atmosphere with their vigorous pounding of the drums.  Although the elephant couldn't usually have been exposed to this kind of sustained explosive sound, it remained calm and cool throughout the performance, justifying the implicit faith reposed in it by the temple authorities and by the assembled devotees! . . .

Music-lovers in the Capital who wish to hear a dazzling variety of rhythmic exercises would do well to visit the Ayyappan Temple in R.K. Puram on any one or more of the next few days (till May 12). 
                                                                 (to be continued)

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