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Updated: June 12, 2014 18:10 IST

Monarch of the kuzhal

G. S. Paul
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Kodakara Sivaraman Nair playing the Kurumkuzhal. Photo: K.K. Najeeb
The Hindu Kodakara Sivaraman Nair playing the Kurumkuzhal. Photo: K.K. Najeeb

Septuagenarian Kodakara Sivaraman Nair, perhaps the most sought-after of Kerala’s kurumkuzhal artistes, talks about his journey with the wind instrument and its unique features.

Symphony may be a musical form of Western music. But in Kerala its equivalent is the myriad chenda melams, generally described as percussion ensembles. Though basically anchored on rhythms of ascending tempos, they have a strong musical side. This is the contribution of an array of kurumkuzhal artistes facing the ‘uruttu chendas’ led by the ‘pramanakkaran’ who is the helmsman of the show. At the same time it is the ‘pramanakkaran’ of the kuzhals who also plays a pivotal role in the systematic progress of the show that lasts for three to four hours.

“Once the duration of a melam is prescribed by the pramanakkaran, the onus of keeping the time frame falls on us,” says septuagenarian Kodakara Sivaraman Nair who is presently the ‘Kulapathy’ of kuzhal artistes. Six decades of uninterrupted service in this field has made him a sought-after artiste of all the major melams in temples in Kerala.

Unique features

Kurumkuzhal is a tiny pipe with immense potential. The shehnai of North India, the mukhaveena of Tamil Nadu and the mouri of Karnataka may resemble this instrument’s look.

But a close examination reveals that both in its technical construction and the mode of playing, the kuzhal has certain unique features and applications.

The rustic origin of the instrument is evident from the colloquial names of its parts. The conical wooden pipe, the main body, has a bell metal attachment at the bottom known as ‘Keezh anasu’. The reed is known as ‘sivali’ and it has a small attachment called ‘mel anasu’. ‘Ganda’ is the small metal tube into which the reed is fixed. A few ornamental attachments that hang from the body add to the elegance of the kuzhal.

What makes it an ingenious one is the distribution of seven holes in a row, above, and one below that is closed by the left thumb of the player. That single opening speaks for the antiquity of the instrument as its location is the same as in the ‘madhukari’ mentioned in the 13th century treatise on musicology, Sangeetha Ratnakaram, authoured by Sarangadeva. While the seven holes on the top produce the seven notes of Harikamboji raga, the lower one gives ‘Ni’ (nishada).

Traditional training is imparted through practice with elders in temples where kuzhal forms an intrinsic part of all rituals. As for Sivaraman Nair, his initiation was under his uncle Vattekkattu Velayudhan Panicker, a nagaswaram artiste of repute. “My role was just keeping the sruti for his music but gradually he trained me in playing the saptha swaras,” recalls Sivaraman Nair. The strict training he had had is reflected in the clarity of the swaras that his kuzhal produces. And this is what makes him an outstanding artiste of the instrument. Gradually, he was deputed for ‘paras’ and ‘adiyanthirams’ (temple related rituals) in the absence of his uncle, all of which enriched his experience.

His foray into the more challenging role occurred when he was invited by maestros Thekkamadhathil Balan Nair and Ikkara Padmanabhan Panicker to join them in melams. His debut as the ‘pramanakkaran’ was for a melam led by Chakkamkulam Sankunni Marar, in connection with the Bharani at Kurumalikkavu near Kodakara. Since then Sivaraman Nair has “never had to look back.”

He continues to be a regular invitee for festivals and Poorams in the temples at Thriprayar, Aarattupuzha, Peruvanam, Oorakam, Cherpu, Thrippayya, Thrikkur, Irinjalakuda, Tripunithura, Kodungallur and Thrissur, to mention only a few. From 2000, he started leading the Kuzhal contingent for the famous ‘Elanjithara Melam’ of Thrissur Pooram.

Sivaraman Nair avers that it was his association with stalwarts of yesteryear that moulded him as a consummate Kuzhal artiste. Nowadays, he is the pick of Peruvanam Kuttan Marar with whom he had the privilege of performing in numerous places including venues outside Kerala.

Playing the kuzhal

An authority on the instrument, Sivaraman Nair explained the singular techniques employed in playing the instrument especially for melams.

“Swaram marikkuka" is a subtle process by which one can blow and breathe simultaneously. A practice that can be perfected only by prolonged exercise, this enables one to produce the notes in continuous succession. Further, it becomes necessary when the intervals between eda kalaasams are to be filled with ragas. The ragas are Sankarabharanam for Panchari, Bhairavi for Pandi, Arabhi for Chempada and Saveri for Champa melams. ‘Kuzhal minnikkuka’, the act of drawing circles in the air with the instrument, is a signal to the chendas to pick up where the kalaasams are to be played. The understanding between the melam pramani and the kuzhal pramani has to be total and the communication between them takes place through just a glance or a nod of the head.”

Innumerable are the golden pendants with which Sivaraman Nair has been honoured by all the temples where he has performed so far.

“It was a great moment in my life when I had the privilege of receiving a replica of the Asoka Pillar from the late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi after a performance in Delhi in connection with the Republic Day celebrations in 1986,” says Sivaraman Nair.

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