Kalpathy Balakrishnan has bagged the Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Akademi Award for the best thayambaka artist.
Three years ago, Rolf Groesbeck, an associate professor of Ethnomusicology at the University of Arkansas, United States, revisited Kerala, which had inculcated in him an enduring fascination for the thayambaka. He had heard of a young icon in the thayambaka who was creating ripples in artistic circles in and around Kerala with his infectious articulations on the chenda. The youngster whom the scholar interviewed for nearly three hours is none other than Kalpathy Balakrishnan.
Balakrishnan, hailing from Kalpathy, a village in Palakkad, had a difficult childhood. Although his parents were not interested in any indigenous art forms, they recognised their son's drumming talent. It was Karekkattparambu Appu Nair who initiated Balakrishnan to the world of chenda. In the 1970's, it wasn't that easy for a youngster who did not belong to a community that traditionally performed in temples to train in the percussion performed as rituals in many temples. However, Balakrishnan's mother and uncle managed to put him under the tutelage of Mankurrissi Appa Marar for whom instinct and interest mattered more than caste privileges. Balakrishnan had his debut at the age of nine. When he was barely 12, he was invited to perform at the Aryankavu temple near Koonathara in Palakkad. Thrithala Kesava Poduwal, a reputed figure in the field of percussion, attended the concert as he was performing a thayambaka recital at the same venue later in the day. Watching the boy's deft movements and concentration, Kesava Poduwal voluntarily walked on stage and lent support. “This is something I will never forget,” says a beaming Balakrishnan.
However, despite his mastery of the thyambaka, invitations to perform in temple festivals used to be few and far in between as he does not hail from the communities that traditionally perform in temples. Silent and subtle are Balakrishnan's tools of protest. He has laboured hard to be adept at playing various percussion instruments such as the thimila, the maddalam, the edakka and the elathalam.
Being inherently left-handed, Balakrishnan needed training for his right hand. Kalloor Narayanankutty helped him hone his skills for the right hand.
In the Panchavadyams pioneered by the peerless Pallavoor Brothers, Balakrishnan played the elathalam for years. It was Kallekkulangara Achuthankutty who created a space for him in the numerous temple festivals for the thayambaka. Such an exposure was a blessing to Balakrishnan who gradually grew up as an independent soloist in the 1990's. Till then, his was a life of interminable hardship and deprivation.
Balakrishnan's auditory sensitivity is incredible in the sense that he has imaginatively assimilated the seminal characteristics of the Western and Eastern Palakkad schools of the thayambaka. He never evades from playing the customary ‘ennams' in Pathikaalam and in the koorus. In line with the stalwarts of the thayambaka in East Palakkad, Balakrishnan has an unfathomable predilection for Adantha kooru, the slowest execution of which has incurred the wrath of the puritans of the Malamakkavu School.
Both in the Pathikaalam and in the kooru, Balakrishnan boldly undertakes tonal experiments. He navigates the surface of the edanthala with multiple positioning of the stick and the hand. The resultant polyphony enthuses listeners.
The captivating tones of percussion instruments such as the thavil, the tabla and the mridangam beguile the cognoscenti and the uninitiated. With the naliratti of the kooru, Balakrishnan bids farewell to the elite among the audience. From edavattom to irikita, he virtually plays to the gallery. The performance transgresses its stylised boundaries. As the tempo mounts, hundreds of listeners go into a trance. In the fastest irikita segment, Balakrishnan does an amazing display of switching stick from the right hand to the left and vice versa. Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair after listening to Balakrishnan's thayambaka performance commented: “This is one of the most precious moments in my life. Balakrishnan is truly a Savyasaachi. It would have been a tremendous loss in my life if I hadn't heard him play.”
An artiste lives in the minds of his/her audience. Sans their support, no laurels can help an artiste survive in any society. Balakrishnan's life underscores this fact. Keli, a cultural organisation for the promotion of traditional arts in Mumbai, presented him an award it instituted for up-and-coming artistes in Kerala. He has now bagged the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi Award for the best thayambaka artist.
Kalpathy Balakrishnan symbolises the harmony of radicalism and the glory of diligence in an age besieged by mindless exhibitionism.