Kochi: Former Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi once visited Kerala Kalamandalam—a university teaching traditional performing arts such as Kathakali, Mohiniattam and Bharatanatyam—during its golden jubilee celebrations. While the hosts rushed to welcome Gandhi who landed there in a helicopter, chenda (drum) maestro Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Poduval was seen standing still on the stage. He was trying to produce the background music of an aircraft from his chenda for Ravanolbhavan—a dance drama Kathakali where Ravana would kidnap Sita and bring her to Lanka in pushpa vimana (an aircraft made of flowers).
Chenda and maddalam (a heavy instrument with leather cover on either side) are used for Kathakali. There are other percussion instruments such as mridangams and edakkas (a bigger version of damaru). Hundreds of artistes play them in orchestras at temple festivals in Kerala that begin in December and continue until May.
V.V. Raghavan, 54, and his relatives in Peruvamba village in the central Palakkad district bordering Tamil Nadu make a living by creating these instruments and repairing old ones.
At first sight, Raghavan’s house looks like a tannery with the skin of buffaloes and cows spread out for drying under the sun. Raghavan belongs to the kadayan community, which literally means carving. He is often seen chipping the inside of jackfruit tree logs. His elder son Sivan, 26, scrubs buffalo skin while the younger Simod, 22, applies black paste on the leather covering one side of the maddalam and taps it to test the tone.
Sound of music:Raghavan being helped by his son Sivan in tightening the straps of a maddalam. The maddalam is an important instrument in dance form Kathakali and percussion orchestra panchavadyam. Ajayan / Mint
Raghavan remembers the late Krishnankutty Poduval, whose slender stick for beats and rolls on the chenda was like a magic wand, mesmerising aficionados. He also remembers maddalam artiste Appukutty Poduval and chenda maestro Trithala Kesavan sitting for hours at his house while his father was making the instruments.
Selection of wood
“It is a cumbersome process that starts with the selection of wood,” he says. So, whenever a jackfruit tree is being cut in his village he rushes there as he needs a two-foot-long log of the trunk of a mature tree that’s at least 60 years old. This costs him Rs5,000-6,000. He buys hides of buffaloes or cows from abattoirs, paying around Rs1,500.
Cow skin is used in chenda, goat skin in mridangam and the thin skin of the cow’s intestine for the face?of?the?eddakka.
The wood is dried for at least a month and then chiselled to make it hollow. The skins are washed, stretched and pegged to small poles on the ground to be dried in sunlight for weeks and to be scrubbed and smoothened later. While two pieces are cut to cover the mouth of the hollow log, the rest is cut into long strap-like pieces that are used to tighten the cover.
It is indeed a meticulous process. Dry arecanut leaves are burnt and the ash is ground with cooked rice to form a paste that is applied on the skin to make it smooth. “It is this that gives the quality of tone to the instrument,” says Simod as he continues applying the paste several times and rubbing it.
Making a chenda is relatively easier, but work on a maddalam is not only difficult but also needs a craft, says Raghavan. He makes chendas and mridangams and edakkas, but has been concentrating more on maddalams these days.
The maddalam, an important instrument in Kerala’s dance drama Kathakali and percussion orchestra panchavadyam, used to be hung from the neck. The late Thiruvilwamala Venkiteswara Iyer, popularly known as Venkichan Swamy, sought the assistance of Raghavan’s grandfather and father to get the maddalam in its present form, weighing around 20kg and now hung from the waist.
A new maddalam fetches Raghavan Rs12,000. He makes 10 such instruments in a year. His brother Prashant Babu too is in this business. “On average, each of us gets around 30 maddalams for repair. Then, there are orders for some chendas and mridangams which are rehauled using new skin. In these, the margin is higher.
“Since there is a music and dance culture in Tamil Nadu, we get a few orders for mridangams from there,” says Babu.
K.C. Narayanan, a literary critic who has authored several pieces on Kerala’s art forms, says it is the proximity to Tamil Nadu, rich in the culture of music, that has made Peruvamba a centre for these instruments. “Unlike in Tamil Nadu where vocal music has prominence, the accompaniments used for a music concert like the mridangam and its varied forms like the maddalam and thimila have taken centre stage in Kerala’s percussion orchestras. It’s more a culture of noise than voice here,” he says.
These instruments are associated with temples in Kerala. In the southern state, there are sub-sects within the caste system, such as the Marars and Poduvals, who by tradition are drummers attached to temples performing during the dawn and dusk poojas. Many of them make a living out of playing these instruments.
The percussion orchestras, panchavadyam, pancharimelam or pandimelam have more than 100 artistes performing at a time, creating a pyramid-like rhythmic structure of sound in a rising tempo. The popularity of these has not only sustained the art but also led to growing demand for these instruments.
Instrument makers do not make enough money to eke out a decent living, but they can hope for a better day. At least one school in Kerala, Peringod School at Parasseri, has started offering learning percussion instruments as a subject to its students. The 10+2 students have the option of selecting one of the percussion instruments along with computer science. Many of them play percussion instruments during festivals.
One big concern Raghavan has is change in climate. “Frequent, untimely showers affect the drying of animal skins, which can adversely impact the tonal quality of the instruments,” he says. Another serious problem, according to his brother Babu, is the high fat content in cattle skin that leads to cracks and not only affects the tonal quality but also the instruments’ lifespan.
Veterinary surgeon P. Krishnadas, who works at Tiruvilwamala, some 30km from Peruvamba, says: “Till a few years ago cattle were allowed to graze. Now they are bred in sheds and given cattle feed. Lack of movement and exercise lead to heavy fat deposits.”