By V.P. Dhananjayan
Melappadam is a musical ensemble in Kathakali. In Kerala, the instrumental tradition of ‘melam’ refers to percussion instruments such as chenda, maddalam, edakka, timila, elatalam, chengala, and konbu which are played on auspicious occasions, especially in temple festivals. The padam in Carnatic music generally refers to the slow paced singing of songs and compositions. In Kathakali, the dialogue between characters is highly evolved and poems are sung in bhava laden ragas. In the golden era the style of singing was called Sopanam. Now the Kathakali sangeetam has taken a different route similar to Carnatic music, leaving behind the Sopana style to ashtapadi padam singing in Krishna temples in Kerala.
The present generation of Kathakali rasikas may not be very familiar with ‘melappadam’ which is loosely translated as “musical ensemble" in English, because of its conspicuous absence in a Kathakali presentation. Moreover, not many young Kathakali bhagavatars are adept in this unique sampradaya or feature in a Kathakali performance. The time factor in today’s Kathakali presentation on a proscenium stage which could last for a maximum of three hours cannot accommodate a melappadam session which itself consumes an hour at least.
Melappadam is a musical interlude which immediately follows the vibrant nritta prelude known as ‘purappaadu’ which gives the lead line of an ashtapadi (from Jayadeva’s Geeta Govindam) at the end and usually Manjutara kunjatala keli sadane in Todi raga and Chempa tala (10 matras count) – equivalent to the Jhampa tala, but is differently executed.
In the olden days, Kathakali bhagavatars practised and believed in lakshya rather than lakshana sangeetam, and hence did not concentrate much on swara suddham and sruti suddham. In the recent past, with the establishment of Kerala Kalamandalam in 1930 and the revival of Kathakali, the Kathakali sangeetam also got a filip and classically trained musicians like Kalamandalam Neelakandan Nambeesan and Kadathanadu Govindan Nambeesan infused a new trend in melappadam in combination with stalwarts like Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Poduval and Appukkuty Poduval. We do not know exactly when this feature was introduced in the Kathakali tradition, but this is a unique concept, which gave the bhagavatars a chance to explore and exhibit their virtuosity as a sangeetagna (experts in geetam, vadyam and natyam).
Melappadam is one of the most difficult ensembles with loud instruments like the chenda and maddalam, the elatalam and chengala as accompaniments to the singing. Sometimes the 'double melam’ – with two chendas and two maddalams) would provide an exciting “melakkozhuppu” (a full bench sound regalia). Probably this could be compared to the ragam-tanam-pallavi and the tani avartanam in a music kutcheri or nagaswara concert.
Usually, the kalapramanam is set to begin in eight kala chauka – in the Chempa tala cycle of 10 matras x 8 = 80 matras, and then stage by stage it counts down to 40, 20,10, 5, and then accelerates to a high crescendo in chaturasra nadai – a climax you cannot imagine, but can only experience.
In a bid to revive the Melappadam tradition, recently the Sadanam Kathakali Academy headed by Dr. Sadanam Harikumar took the initiative to create a new Melappadam with the text Mamiyam chalita vilokya from the ashtapadi and set in Atantha talam (same as Ata tala). This Melappadam was presented at the Sadanam Auditorium on 26th July in connection with the celebrations of the late Keezhpadam Kumaran Nair’s 100th birth anniversary as a tribute to the great Kathakali natyacharya. This is slightly in deviation from old tradition – that is Chempa talam to Atantha talam (10 to 14 matras) and an experiment in ragamalika instead of a single raga (usually Todi raga).
This new Melappadam starts with the ending of the purappad and is composed as a ragamalika with Mohanam, Pantuvarali, Kharaharapriya, Natakurinji, Sahana, and Madhyamavati. It has interesting nada variations.
I feel privileged to demonstrate the ashtapadi in Kathakali style, accompanied by versatile musicians Sadanam Harikumar, Sadanam Sivadasan. Sadanam Ramakrishnan, Sadanam Jithin, Sadanam Rajagopalan and Sadanam Devadasan. The lecdem is from 9 to 10 am on 23 December 2015 at the Music Academy mini hall.