Kalamandalam Sankara Warrier has redefined the role of the maddalam on Kathakali stages and widened the scope of the percussion instrument. He has been chosen for the Kerala Kalamandalam Award.

In his cautiously written critique on Kathakali maddalam, Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Poduwal has noted that but for the avant-garde efforts of Thiruvilwamala Venkichan Swamy, the maddalam would have remained an inconsequential instrument hung in a corner of a temple. Venkichan Swamy provided a scientific configuration to the training in and performance of the maddalam way back in the 1930's. Kerala Kalamandalam became the breeding ground of percussionists under Kalamandalam Appukutty Poduwal, one of the favourite disciples of Swamy. Of the umpteen maddalam players groomed by Poduwal and his student, Narayanan Nambeesan, Kalamandalam Sankara Warrier is a rare gem. Sankara Warrier was chosen for the Kerala Kalamandalam Award.

Making a mark

Sankara Warrier belongs to the Thillankeri village of Kannur district. It was probably providence that took him to Kalamandalam for training on the maddalam in the early 1970's. The two maestros at Kalamandalam paid extraordinary attention to discipline their infinitely talented disciple. His profound musical sensibility, firm grip over rhythm, and tempo-sensitivity helped him make a mark among discerning fans of Kathakali.

Not long after his completion of the course at Kalamandalam, he was appointed there as instructor of maddalam in the Faculty of the South School of Kathakali. Incidentally, Sankara Warrier had also quite easily grasped the distinctive notes and phrases in the playing of the maddalam followed by practitioners of the Kaplingadan style.

As instructor, Warrier's stint at Kalamandalam in the late 1970's was neither delightful nor resourceful. Like all whiz kids, he was understandably frustrated by the rigidities of an institutional set-up.

He started looking for alternatives. The Kathakali School of FACT, Udyogamandal, had by then advertised to fill a vacancy for the post of a teacher of maddalam. He stood first in the interview and was instantly appointed.

The horizontally held heavy percussion instrument poses several challenges to the artiste who has to strive to create a certain impact on the valamtala and etantala of the maddalam. With his matchless mastery over the techniques, Sankara Warrier redefined the role of the maddalam player. While dutifully supporting the chenda during the execution of many a divergent kalasam, Sankara Warrier began concentrating on the chiselled expressions of the nuances that augment the sentimental shades of characterisation.

Interactions on stage

On stage, he boldly questioned the positioning of the maddalam as a mere ‘filler' to the silences engendered by the chenda off and on.

For all the Nayikas (heroines) such as Damayanthi and the Prathinayikas such as Nakrathundi, Sankara Warrier's beats on the maddalam have been awe inspiring. The lyrical metaphors of Unnayi Warrier, Irayimman Thampi, and Karthika Thirunal get translated into appropriate swaras when Sankara Warrier performs on stage. The singing of the cuckoo, the dancing of the peacock, and the wailing of the damsel are matched and, sometimes surpassed, by the corresponding or even more ingenious imitations of the same on his maddalam.

Soul-piercing was his interactions on stage with eminent actors such as Kottakkal Sivaraman. His ‘Na'karam, Chappu, and the dhimrita always bear an astounding identity. His melappadam with Sadanam Vasudevan as the counterpart on the chenda was a sensation for years in various cultural venues of south Kerala.

The late Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair who had listened to the concerts of all the major maddalam players right from the days of Venkichan Swamy once commented: “Since the days of Manjeri Sankunni Nair, the melody on the maddalam has found its fullest manifestation only in the performance of Sankara Warrier.”

Sankara Warrier has proved himself to be a lonely crusader. In spite of its uniquely hailed status as a Devavadyam, Warrier wonders why the maddalam has lagged behind in commanding recognition among the artistic circles as an independent genre of music. His appearances on the Kathakali stage within the last decade have come down for he has become selective.

A short yet intensive training under Cherpalacherry Sivan had initiated Warrier into the field of Panchavadyam long back. But he did not stick to the expansive playground of this temple orchestra for reasons yet unclear to art connoisseurs. He has commendably diverted his creative energy to Maddalakkeli, which unveils the virtuosity of a maddalam artiste in no uncertain terms.

Similar to the framework of Thayambaka, Sankara Warrier has choreographed the pathikaalam, kooru, edavattom, edanila, and irikita in it. But the ennams and the manodharmams in each segment, especially in the panchari nata, are remarkably different from those played on the chenda.

The history of traditional performing arts is sated with the stories of artists whose non-conformity and sparks of creativeness have resulted in the unprecedented advancement of dance, theatre and music. Their off-beat thoughts and actions have certainly enhanced the aesthetic standards of the performing arts.

Contradictions co-exist in their psyche with an amazing fluidity. In that grand lineage of geniuses, Sankara Warrier's name can easily be added.