Maddalam virtuoso and Panchavadyam exponent Thrikkur Rajan's spellbinding beats never transgress the framework of tradition. The septuagenarian artiste is this year's recipient of the Pallavoor Appu Marar Puraskaram.
Of the many divergent genres of indigenous percussion ensemble, Panchavadyam, the traditional temple orchestra, has, in the past half-a-century, won great appreciation within Kerala and outside. For the most part, the credit for its mass appeal goes to a host of inimitable practitioners of the art form. Maddalam virtuoso Thrikkur Rajan is undoubtedly one among them. Already a recipient of numerous awards and accolades, including that of the Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Akademi, Rajan has recently been chosen for the prestigious Pallavoor Appu Marar Puraskaram instituted by the Government of Kerala.
Instinct for percussion
Rajan's instinct for percussion music stems from his father, Thrikkur Krishnankutty Marar, who was a consummate maddalam artiste. Under his father's tutelage , Rajan grasped the paatakkai at an early age and, in course of time, attained thorough knowledge about the rhythmic and tempo variations of Panchavadyam at the practical and theoretical levels. One of the key qualities demanded of a maddalam player is the simultaneous falling of the two hands on the two sides of the instrument. The countless repetition of the ‘ennam' – thikkinna, thikkinna, thithithikkinna, thikkinna dhi – on the maddalam alone ensures precision in the dual strokes that are a challenge to most players. Rajan practised this without any time-constraint. Monotonous but indispensable sadhakam of the set ennams in Panchavadyam in the slow-paced rhythmic scale of Thriputa tala helped Rajan master the instrument in Panchavadyam.
Tremendous opportunities awaited him in festivals in and around Thrissur and Palakkad districts, which hold aloft the pride of Poorams. As the cliché goes, since then Rajan has not had to look back. For decades now, Rajan has been leading the Panchavadyam of the Paramekkavu temple in the Thrissur Pooram.
The intimate associations that Rajan had with icons on the maddalam such as Thrikkur Gopalankutty Marar, Kolamangalath Narayanan Nair, Chalakkudy Narayanan Nambeesan, and the Annamanada trio, sharpened his technical skills and kindled his urge for manodharma. The influential strokes on the edanthala and the valamthala of his maddalam rise above the sound of every other maddalam artiste in a Panchavadyam. The short and sturdy performer has an unsullied eye for sustaining the tempos and for the spontaneous transitions as Panchavadyam moves on to the crescendo. In the Triputavattam, Rajan does pithy improvisations that are always a delight for the initiated rasika.
Yet, he can hardly tolerate ‘off beats.' He consciously shuns gimmicks and complex phrases in every recital. To him, individualism in a composite art form calls for logical analysis from time to time. While he openly acknowledges the time-honoured grammar of Panchavadyam, Rajan does not believe in retaining the maddalam as a frozen discourse in the prosperous space of Panchavadyam. At the same time, he admits that he is not comfortable with Panchamaddalakeli, which has now become an acid test to gauge the proficiency of a maddalam artiste. Moved by Rajan's manodharmas in the mukham of the slowest tempo and in the second and third tempos, the late A.S.N. Nambeesan, a scholar of percussion-music, has eulogised the solidity, purity, creativity, and accuracy of Rajan's hands that operate as an integrated whole in any recital he pioneers.
Unlike many of the renowned artistes of the day, Rajan comes across as amazingly modest. Without a tinge of narcissism, he expresses his views on the grand figures in the field of Panchavadyam. He is all praise for Cherpalacherry Sivan and Kunissery Chandran for their mastery over maddalam and their infinite imagination. Rajan also marvels at the adroitness of Kalamandalam Sankara Warrier, a wizard on Kathakali stages.
With the late Chottanikkara Narayana Marar, the thimila artiste, Rajan had fostered an extraordinary understanding, which was well reflected in their combined performances. However, he considers Pallavoor Maniyan Marar as the most melodious of thimila players of yore. And when it comes to the edakka, Rajan fondly recollects the amazing artistry of Appu Marar in the thaniavartanam (inventive dialogues between the various musical instruments in an apportioned segment) of the Triputavattam. Years ago, when this writer inquired of former artiste Kulamanagalath Narayanan Nair about his favourite colleague on the maddalam, the usually reticent guru remarked without mincing words: “If you force me, I would say, Thrikkur Rajan, for he knows what is appropriate in Panchavadyam and never does he transgress the boundaries.” This aptly sums up the artistic vision and achievements of the septuagenarian instrumentalist.