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Updated: May 31, 2014 16:42 IST

A chenda in the courtroom

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Illustration: Satheesh Vellinezhi
Illustration: Satheesh Vellinezhi

How the sound of the Marar’s drums broke the silence of Chandu Menon’s court...

A hundred years ago, the District Judge of Kozhikode was an Englishman named Davids. During the proceedings in his court, he insisted on silence so absolute that not even the whisper of a breeze was allowed. This stringent rule caused many an unpleasant scene in the court complex where there were a number of courtrooms.

Chandu Menon may have wanted to try his hand at doing something to resolve this situation. An accomplished chenda player, a Marar, felt insulted when the sponsors who invited him specially to play at a Pooram paid him the same fee normally fixed for an ordinary player of the same instrument. Believing he had lost both self-respect and money, the Marar decided to go to court; the case came up before none other then Chandu Menon.

Chandu Menon, sub-judge, tall and portly, resplendently and impressively turbaned, sat in his courtroom. The witness-boxes were on the far sides of the room. In the centre were the assistants of Shamu Menon, Karpoorayyar, Raghavan and Unnikrishna Menon. The kandaru menons stood in obeisance in the verandah outside, bent low, documents under their arms. The proceedings were about to begin.

Adjoining this was District Judge Davids’ court. The atmosphere there was funereal, utterly silent, as the proceedings went on. The peons held their breath, wide eyed, the vakils stood still, even running out and bending over double to control an errant sneeze, so afraid were they of making the slightest sound. The usual icy silence prevailed. Then… dhindimi dhami dimi dhindimi, dham di… the sounds of a chenda!

The sayiv jumped up with a jolt, startled! “What?” He rolled his eyes and raised his head, listening in surprise… thika thari kida thakathika thari kida thakam… rose the pounding sound of the chenda, louder and louder, like a building collapsing, or crackers exploding. “This… is… a… courthouse!” Davids roared, his face flushed. Enraged, he wrote a note to the sub-judge next door, and sent it off with a peon .

The peon stepped into the neighbouring courtroom. He saw the Marar in the witness box, twisting and turning vigorously, as his play gained momentum. Chandu Menon, the sub-judge, reclined in his chair, eyes closed, nodding his head and tapping his fingers to the rhythm of the chenda.

As the peon entered, the Marar, the kandaru menons, the vakils absorbed in the chenda melam, all guessed the reason. The man approached the judicial seat, trembling. The judge, however, kept his eyes closed, head and fingers moving faster and faster keeping time, as the sounds of the chenda rose higher and higher to a crescendo! Minutes passed. Chandu Menon did not stir or open his eyes or ask “Yes, what is it?”

“Narayana, Shiva-Shiva, Bhagavathi, please come to my rescue,” prayed the peon fervently. The closed eyes opened for a moment, and shot him a look akin to a spear or a bullet from a gun! Then the drama continued to unfold, the chenda thundering louder and louder!

In the adjacent room Davids was fuming! “Where is that ass that carried my chit?” he shouted. His patience at an end, he stomped out noisily and purposefully towards the court of the sub-judge. The scene before him only aggravated his fury! There stood his peon almost in tears in front of the sub-judge, who lay back relaxed, his eyes closed, head rolling gently from side to side, fingers tapping the table, keeping time! The Marar was perspiring profusely, his muscular body writhing  as he played harder and harder. The height of impudence! Davids watched, furious, trembling at this arrogance!

When he saw Davids in a silent rage, the Marar wished he could stop — but there sat the Devil himself who signalled to him to continue. On one side was Chandu Menon, totally absorbed in the chenda melam, like a mischievous Krishna with his eyes closed before a Duryodhana and Arjuna; on the other, the senior judge, paranoid at the very sight of a fly buzzing somewhere in his court, was watching this noisy and ludicrous spectacle. In the centre was the pitiable peon, praying silently. In the witness box was the poor Marar, by now exhausted but continuing to play vigorously, as he cast sidelong glances at the sayiv. The audience of this drama — the vakils, the kandarumenons and others — were not quite sure how to react. After a couple of moments, Chandu Menon gestured to the Marar to stop playing.

Eyes still closed, he delivered his judgement. “The Marar must be paid the same as a first-class player.” Only then did he open his eyes and see the distraught District Judge.

“Excuse me, Mr. Davids, but I simply had to do justice,” he apologised. Speechless with rage, Davids marched off to his own court. Later that evening, Chandu Menon explained the situation to Davids, “The performance you witnessed was for me to decide the Marar’s calibre, whether he was indeed a maestro. What would you have done if you had to decide this? I am really sorry, Mr. Davids, that my attempt to mete out justice true to my conscience inconvenienced you. Do excuse me.”

(Excerpted from P.K. Balakrishnan’s Chandu Menon, A Study; translated by Vijaya Unnikrishnan, sourced and edited by Mini Krishnan.)

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