'It's best time for Kerala percussion'

Dubai, June 4 (IANS) He is arguably Kerala's most famous percussionist. Mattannur Sankaran Kutty, known for working magic on Kerala's traditional chenda drum, says "it is the best time for Kerala percussion" as it now crosses myriad boundaries of caste, religion and gender.

And a large contributing factor is the Malayali expat community taking a keen interest in understanding and promoting the art.

Mattannur, as he is popularly called, also stands out for his pioneering role in the chenda crossing the traditional threshold of being just a temple percussion instrument, enabling a much wider global audience. And he is especially excited at the unified yet diverse Malayali audience he gets while performing in the Gulf.

"You get to see a real coming together of Malayalis... You will find a Mohammed and an Alphonse in the audience enjoying the performance. So without us knowing, our culture finds place in their hearts. This coming together is something you experience best in Dubai," Mattannur told IANS in an interview here.

The first chenda artiste to be awarded a Padma Shri in 2009, Mattannur performed on three consecutive evenings in the UAE over the weekend. He is renowned for his skills in Thayambaka (a recital showcasing a chenda player's individual skills) and as a 'pramani' (chief), leading scores of artistes in a Melam or percussion ensemble that includes other instruments like the 'ilathalam' (large cymbal), and 'kombu' (a horn-like wind instrument) and kuzhal (pipe). While Dubai saw its first Melam of over 40 artistes organised by Wednesday Events, Mattanur and his two sons performed a Triple Thayambaka on two separate occasions, much to the delight of his NRI fans.

"Audiences in Kerala feel they know everything...Melam, Kathakali..but if the audience in Kerala is, say, 50 percent, then the NRIs are 100 percent. Outside Kerala, Malayalis come with a sense of nostalgia and longing for one's homeland. Even if they don't understand fully, after listening to a Thayambaka, they want to know it better whenever they go back to Kerala.

"There are many people promoting the art here, having come seeking jobs. Now in Dubai, if you want a hundred people for a Melam, you may actually get them! They carry on their art alongside their day jobs,"he says.

Born in a family of traditional percussionists in Mattannur in Kannur district, playing the chenda is "part of his bloodstream". His father, Kunjikrishnan Marar, was his first guru. And now his village is known to the outer world because of his mastery over the chenda.

"The first sounds I can remember are those of the chenda, conch and edakka (another traditional drum) in the Mahadeva Temple near our house. The Marars, chenda and temples have an intrinsic bond and usually when a Marar boy turns five, you send him to the temple and he grows up with the daily poojas and rituals. Our relation to percussion starts even before we get habituated to the drumbeats."

He completed his 'arangettam' (first stage performance) at the age of eight; and Mattannur, in a lighter vein, says he owes some of this quick perfection to his love of sleep!

"My father was a bank employee as well; so chenda lessons would start only after dinner. And I wanted to sleep as soon as I ate. My father would end the class only if I played what I was taught right, so I tried to perfect it as soon as possible...my main motive being getting to bed early," he laughs.

By 12, he was sent to the Gandhi Seva Sadan, Perur, to learn Kathakali chenda in the Gurukul tradition. Mattannur also reveals why he was eager to join the institute.

"In Mattannur, I would reach school late.. only after the morning poojas in the temple. After school, I was sent to buy groceries and then it would be time to go to the temple again for 'Deeparadhana' (evening prayers). So I never got play and that's why I thought if I join Sadanam, I only had to learn the chenda, which was anyway easy for me."

But his hopes were dashed the first day at Sadanam itself. "Chenda practice there started at 3 a.m.! I attended the school attached to the institute and passed Class 10 along with the four-year intensive chenda course."

So despite his lineage, Mattannur learnt chenda the hard way, living in the hostel, leading a highly disciplined life and surviving on a stipend.

Mattannur was part of the Thiruvambadi Temple Melam at the spectacular Thrissur Pooram festival for over 30 years, leading the ensemble as the 'pramani' for six years. The maestro says it was his edakka guru, the much respected Pattarath Sankara Marar, who was responsible for taking him along for the festival. It is an association he prides in.

With his powerful left-hand strokes, he often upset the syntax of a traditional Thayambaka recital but soon won the hearts of conservative percussion aficionados as well. He also faced criticism for his experimentations and forays into jugalbandis or fusions.

"I have been opposed to the idea that temple arts should not go out. So I play wherever people are passionate enough to hear me. I play at church festivals as well...I believe in our Hindu philosophy of 'Lokasamastha Sukhino Bhavanthu (May all people in the world be happy). I don't do it for the money but for art's sake," he says.

Widely travelled, Mattannur has performed jugalbandis with Karaikkudi Mani on the mridangam and Bikram Ghosh on the tabla among many others, displaying more of his innovative style.

"Taalam (rhythm) is international..in Brazil, New York or Thrissur. What varies is the technique and the instrument's sound. Now is an age of fusion, of experimentation and bringing myriad sounds together. It is actually the best time in every way for the growth of Kerala's percussion."

(Malavika Vettath can be contacted at malavika12@gmail.com)

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