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Updated: December 30, 2010 15:40 IST

Master of the maddalam

V. Kaladharan
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Cherpalasseri Sivan
Cherpalasseri Sivan

Maddalam exponent Cherpalasseri Sivan is a ‘Pramani' in Panchvadyam. He is the recipient of the Poomully Aaram Thampuran Puraskaram.

Panchavadyam, the traditional temple orchestra, underwent a radical transformation in the early part of the 20th century; a transformation spearheaded by maddalam maestro Thiruvilwamala Venkichan Swamy, who along with the Annamanada trio of thimila exponents, broadened its framework and harmonised the individual creativity of artistes into a collective corollary. From the status of a liturgical musical form, the Panchavadyam grew into a three- to four-hour non-liturgical symphony. Since then it has attracted gifted artistes of thimila, maddalam, kompu, edakka and elathalam. Today the Panchavadyam is considered by the cognoscenti and the laity as a marvellous piece of aural architecture.

Of those who advanced the classicism and the aesthetics of this musical ensemble, Cherpalasseri Sivan's contributions as a maddalam player are remarkable. Already a recipient of the Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Akademi Award and Kerala Kalamandalam Fellowship besides numerous other prestigious laurels, Sivan has recently been honoured with the Poomully Aaram Thampuran Puraskaram for his artistic brilliance.

Sivan inherited his talent for percussion from his maternal grandfather, Vaalparambil Kunhan Nair, and uncle, Aalukkal Govindan Nair. “My grandfather was a contemporary of titans such as Venkichan Swamy, Madhava Warrier and the like. His slow-tempo koorus in Adantha, Chamba and Panchari had earned him overwhelming appreciation. His three sons tried to learn the maddalam but failed to live up to his expectations. Then it was up to me. He named me Sivan after Lord Mahadeva of Kottiyoor temple,” says the artiste.

Sivan's father, Chazhiyatt Appunni Nair, was a fine singer himself, besides being an admirable thavil player. As a child Sivan often accompanied his father for the ‘edakka pradakshinam' at the Ayappan Kavu in the Cherpalaserri village of Palakkad District. Gradually, he switched over to the maddalam, although it was too heavy for a child to carry.

Sivan enrolled at the Gandhiseva Sadanam School at Peroor, Pathirippala, as a student of maddalam. He was systematically trained in the instrument by Paloor Achutan Nair. As a disciple of Kalamandalam Appukutty Poduwal, Achutan Nair was well-versed in Kathakali maddalam. Sivan grasped from him the negotiating techniques between the chenda and the maddalam in the textual and non-textual segments of Kathakali. He also gained knowledge about tracing multiple emotions of characters into appropriate swaras. On completion of the course at the Sadanam, Sivan approached Kulamangalath Narayanan Nair, the monarch of maddalam, for an indepth study of the functions of the maddalam in Panchavadyam. Sivan was simultaneously drawn to the magic beats of another maddalam genius – Thichoor Maniyan Panickar.

“It was Maniyan Panickar who taught me the ‘Irattikottal' in Panchavadyam. After my intensive training under Panickar, thishram, mishram and khandam became a spontaneous flow with refreshing ‘ennams.' He guided me on my explorations of the swara structure in Panchavadyam. Unable to withstand certain personal tragedies, he committed suicide in the prime of his career,” recollects Sivan.

With the passing away of the heavy-weights in the field, Sivan grew into the ‘Pramani' (helmsman) of the orchestra. For over a quarter century, he has wielded this role with courage and confidence.

Apart from those indispensable qualities like commanding strokes, inimitable fingering and sway over rhythms and tempos, Sivan's expertise is in plugging loopholes left by thimila artistes during a combined performance. By playing more and more irattis, he often intensifies the impact of Panchavadyam.

off beats?His gestures and expressions, while correcting or re-energizing fellow artistes in the course of a recital, are very theatrical. From his body language, samajikaas can easily read Sivan's stature as a ‘Pramani.' Off stage, he is jovial and modest.

Sivan was once a redoubtable presence on Kathakali stages. Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair had an unusual affinity with him. For Ramankutty Nair's prathinayakas such as Ravana and Narakasura, Sivan's forceful strokes on the maddalam along with those of Appukutty Poduwal were awe-inspiring, especially during the Padappurappad (preparation for armed battle). However, he did not stick to Kathakali for long.

Ask him about the stylistic merits of his heroes in the field and Sivan can reel off accurate details of the skill of legends such as Thrithala Kesavan, Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Poduwal and the Pallavoor trinity in vaythaaris (syllables/pnemonics).

As ‘Pramani' for most of the major Poorams in central Kerala, Sivan is at the height of his glory. His artistry has been passed on to his son, Kalamandalam Hariharan, an up-and-coming instrumentalist in Panchavadyam and Kathakali. ‘Sivakaalam,' a book by Raj Anand, is a munificent tribute to the life and times of Sivan, the unassailable percussionist.

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