Chenda maestro Kalamandalam Kesava Poduval enlivened Kathakali stages with his virtuosity and sensitivity.

Kalamandalam Kesava Poduval, 83, repositioned the high-decibel chenda in Kathakali and Thayambaka with his sensitive style. A highly respected guru with a legion of shishyas, he was honoured with the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi award (2013) and, more recently, the Kalamandalam Appukutty Poduval Memorial Trust Award. These are only some of the numerous recognitions and awards that have come this maestro’s way.

Kesava Poduval was a staunch stickler to the famed Malamakkavu style in Thayambaka, an art that he gradually gave up for the sake of Kathakali. On stage, with a gentle twist of his wrists or with a firm stroke he has added verve and life into numerous Kathakali characters. In a long and fruitful career Kesava Poduval has accompanied some of the legends of Kathakali, the varying tones of his chenda breathing life into their evocative performances. He quit playing a few years ago and for a year now, owing to age and failing health, Kesava Poduval has not been teaching. He stays with his wife, Radha, at Tripunithura. He lost his son noted maddalam artiste Kalamandalam Sasi three years ago in an accident.

Kesava Poduval was born in 1931 at the little village of Kudal near Kuttipuram in Malappuram district. He had his first lessons from his father, Achutha Poduval, who so excelled in his art that he was presented the Veerasringala by the then Maharaja. Kesava Poduval’s arangetam in thayambaka was at the age of 12. He was also being trained to play the thimila and almost two years later he performed for the first time in a panchavadyam ensemble. In 1957 he joined Kerala Kalamandalam.

“There are two distinct styles in thayambaka, two schools, Malamakkavu and Palakkadan. I follow the former as I come from the family that actually was responsible for creating this style. Malmakkavu Kesava Poduval, one of the senior members of the family, is supposed to have framed the structure for this style. This style or school is defined by its strict adherence to key components of thayambaka such as the Pathikaalam, Kooru, Itavattom, Itanila and Irikita,” he explains. Kesava Poduval was known as a very good thayambaka artiste till he joined Kalamandalam to learn Kathakali chenda.

When Kesava Poduval joined Kalamandalam, he had as his teachers, among others, masters like Achunni Poduval and Krishnankutty Poduval. Training was tough here. Classes began very early in the morning, a short break for a frugal breakfast and they were back to training. Study was all practical, there was no theory, written projects or the other works that has now been incorporated into the syllabus of Kalamandalam today. “Sometimes there were classes after dinner too. Those years that I spent there gave me the experience and confidence,” says Kesava Poduval. He only needed to whet his skills as he progressed in his career.

Once he came out of Kalamandalam it was an arduous search for opportunities for Kesava Poduval. “That was in 1961. For almost two years I was part of the Parissinikadavu Muthappan Kaliyogam, near Taliparambu, Kannur. That was incidentally my first job. In the meanwhile I also played for other groups whenever they wanted me.”

By the time he left Kalamandalam Kesava Poduval had almost given up thayambaka. He now focussed on Kathakali. In 1964 he joined RLV College of Music and Fine Arts, Tripunithura, as a chenda teacher. He continued here till he retired from service in 1986. “I used to have so many students at home too. This included girls too, who learned the chenda but most of them gave it up once they got married.” Along with teaching this was the most creative phase in Kesava Poduval’s career. “Looking back I don’t know how I managed to divide time among thayambaka, during the early years at Tripunithura, teaching and Kathakali.”

Creating the ambience, tracing expressions of characters and exploring their intricate emotions are the biggest challenge of the chenda artiste on stage. “I have been fortunate to be on stage with Kathakali legends like Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, Pallipuram Gopalan Nair, Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair, Chengannur Raman Pillai and Kalamandalam Gopi. The biggest challenge was playing for ‘Ravanodbhavam’, which has so much importance for melam,” says Kesava Poduval, even as his frail fingers tap out a rhythm.