Tuesday, 10 January 2012

Drumming up a storm

Ganesh V

(Mattannur Sankarankutty Marar’s tayambakam demonstration at the Madras Music Academy on December 15 was a tour de force)

Looking back, I don’t think the audience knew what was coming its way. The soft-spoken elderly gentleman wearing only a mundu, with the top cloth tied around his waist in the traditional fashion of Kerala, was introducing the subject of talas to the audience. It was a prelude to his demonstration of chenda vadyam and tayambakam. He patiently explained the different tala systems used in chenda vadyam, and compared them with the tala systems prevalent in Carnatic music. Speaking in English, he peppered his explanation with short bursts of self-deprecating humour which quite tickled the audience (“I can’t count beyond nine. All of you will have to help me” and “I am from Kerala. I know only Malayalam. Please excuse me.”) All this while, an innocuous looking percussion drum (measuring about 2 feet in height) was sitting next to him. On top of the drum lay two short sticks with bent ends.

He then went on to introduce the different kinds of chenda vadyam, such as pandi melam, adanta melam, and panchari melam. His pronunciation was correct and clear. He then introduced his team (about nine of them, including his two sons) and said that they would now present a 40-minute demonstration of chenda vadyam and tayambakam. He politely requested the amplifier and microphones in the auditorium to be switched off.

A short explanatory note is due here. The chenda is a drum which has been used in the temples of Kerala for many centuries, as part of temple festivities and religious processions. It is usually played along with various accompanying instruments like the edakka (a very small drum which produces a bass sound, hung from the shoulder and played with one hand), ilathalam (cymbals), and kombu (a horn-shaped wind instrument made of brass or copper). Also, chenda vadyam has always provided mood-enhancing background music for Kathakali, Koodiyattam and Krishnanattam, traditional forms of dance-drama. In fact, we can’t think of these dance-dramas without their accompanying music!

Tayambakam is one of the ways in which the chenda and other instruments are played, in a certain rhythmic arrangement.

Back to the lecture-demonstration. If anyone in the audience was wondering why the mikes had to be switched off, he was soon to find out.

The elderly gentleman picked up the drum and sticks and stood at the centre of the stage. All around him, his team members arranged themselves in a semi-circle. They started by playing a simple beat and steadily got into a rhythm. Within minutes, they had built up the tempo to a dizzying speed. And that is when the audience realized the sheer talent of Mattannur Sankarankutty Marar.  And the depth of his music.

The chenda weighs about 12 kg. While its stock is made of jack wood (like the mridangam), the tightly-stretched skin at either end of the drum is made of calf leather. It is hung from strong cloth straps, which are slung around the neck of the player. To lug it for even ten minutes and stand still, leave alone play it, is itself a challenge. Yet, despite being on the wrong side of sixty, Sankarankutty Marar handled the instrument with effortless ease and virtually drummed up a storm! From time to time, his face would break into an impish grin, as though he were amused at the way the audience was spellbound. As the recital progressed, I was thoroughly mesmerized and completely lost track of time.

Marar’s sons and the rest of the team kept pace with him all along. With the drums keeping the beat and cymbals chiming in at just the right moment, a beautiful sound was created. During the solo relay, the way in which each member of the team played for a while and then handed over the baton smoothly to the next member without a beat being missed, was breathtaking. It was a reflection of the team’s perfect sense of timing and anticipation. Chenda vadyam is a team game. It calls for not just individual brilliance from each player, but also deep mutual respect and understanding of your teammates. Sankarankutty Marar’s team was right up there, in all these respects.

Mattannur Sankarankutty Marar is a colossus in chenda vadyam. He passed out of the portals of Sadanam (short for Gandhi Sevasadanam), that venerable school of performing arts located in Peroor-Kerala. From a young age, he has been carrying forward the legacy of Pallavoor Appu Marar, Pallasena Chandra Mannadiar, Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Poduval and other stalwarts of the earlier generation. Chenda vadyam and tayambakam were so far mainly played within and near temples, with the result that not many people outside Kerala know of them. It is only in the past few years that these musical forms have been played at other venues. As a result, geniuses like Sankarankutty Marar are not known outside their circles. Nevertheless, the Government of India has recognized his contribution to this art form and has awarded him the Padma Shri.

Padma Shri Mattannur Sankarankutty Marar’s moving performance kick-started the lec-dem sessions at the Annual Music Conference and Concerts of the Madras Music Academy. With their astonishing display of sound, synchronization and rhythmic artistry, Sankarankutty Marar and team won over the hearts of the chaste Madras audience.

As for me, the goosebumps did not subside for several minutes after the programme.


  1. Sowmya Raghu Raman18 March 2015 at 15:01

    Truly appreciate the rhythm of this piece...builds up the crescendo, in terms of both content and tempo, for the reader:)