Thrikkampuram Krishnankutty Marar’s music was for the soul. Carnatic vocalist Sreevalsan J. Menon pays homage to the grand old man of Kerala’s music tradition.

When Jayan’s call came in, I was looking at a temple tank in the Mappattacherry Kavu off Nileswaram. The water body was small compared to the elaborate architectural structure around it. This was a miniature representative of the magnificent temple pond of Peralassery and such other ponds in North Malabar. The dense laterite masonry, the angular flight of of steps, the pyramidal supports and the precise symmetry evoked a flutter deep within. “Why does this immovable symmetry move us? What were the promptings of the native architects who conceived such detailed structures for tiny water bodies? How does a simple…..”

“Achan yathrayaayi….” Jayan’s tone appeared calm when he broke into my train of thoughts. He was conveying the news of his father, Thrikkampuram Krishnankutty Marar’s final journey. I went back in time from the still waters of the temple tank to the racy waters of Muvattupuzhayaar, to the banks of Ramamangalam, to Shadkala Govinda Marar and to Asan’s [Thrikkampuram Krishnankutty Marar] music.

It was a chance meeting in a Bhagavathi temple near Ramamangalam. The resonant voice and raw gamakams drew me to the frail singer. The style was sopanam.. That much I could gather. The song ‘Pookkula mala…’ was being sung in a style that I had never heard before, a blend of Vedic chant and music. I was awestruck. The tune was simple and yet I couldn’t sing it the way he was singing.

Overwhelmed, I went and prostrated before him. “Vasudevan sir’s sishyan?” he asked before inviting me home. From then on, I used to frequent Ramamangalam. It used to be a multipurpose visit – Perumtrikkovil Balanarasimha temple, Vaidyamadom outlet and Thrikkampuram.

Asan was well read, articulate in thoughts and always picked the right word. His Malayalam was as rich and chaste as his thimila and Sopana sangeetham. When it came to sharing knowledge he was very generous. Deeply passionate about Shadkala Govinda Marar, Asan taught me two Tyanis of the legendary musician. Our meetings had music in the air and they concluded with talks on food.

The goodbye ceremony was very special as it involved handing over of a packet of Kondattam (sun-dried rice wafers) or Chammandippodi by Lakshmi Kuttty Amma, Asan’s wife, to me.

Asan’s idea of music gave me clarity on what art stood for. A classical art presents its student an opportunity for a lifelong learning. It took me many years to understand the very idea of path to perfection. Of course, the road shows all along the sidewalks had a lot more glitter. While my guru walked me though this path, I was baffled at the intricacies and technicalities of the Carnatic system.

What we think is right could turn out to be wrong. Voices competed to pull you in different directions. In every Carnatic musician’s learning curve there will be a point where beauty gets detached from the art. It is upon the artiste to regain this during the course of his/her journey. A true artiste always succeeds.

When the artiste grapples only with technique, art is left soulless. It is like a vortex. You get sucked in and, for many, there is no return. “Master the technique but search for the soul. Think from the head and sing from the heart”, Asan would later remark in his conversations.

When Thrikkampuram sang ‘Tungapinga jadakalapavum’ in Revagupthi, an inexplicable grandeur enveloped this deceptively simple melody. How does a simple melodic structure create a thick mystical air around it? The term mystical is used not because it is not replicable, but because the attempt is ineffective.

My wiser mates back in college wanted art to be demystified. I had then vigorously nodded in acknowledgement and in support. After hearing Thrikkampuram I stood corrected. “In art, the simple too can touch divinity”, Asan would say. My own version of the Revagupti Tyani has some add-on sangathis, but such embellishments seem to hide the real magic.

Yet, innovating is something that the artiste can’t do without. So I impregnate ideas into simple music structures so as to reap aesthetic newer ones. It is a balancing act. I am learning. Learning where to add and where not to. I am trying to arrive at the smallest and the simplest most beautiful phrase of the ragam. I am learning… step by step, chiselling and arranging each sopanam with ornamentations and pyramids. From the symmetric pond of the Viswakarma to the abstract music of the Sopana gayakan it is all about the flight of steps.

The cremation was over. We were late by a day. Lakshmikutty Amma narrated Asan’s final moments in the hospital. Promising to return, we walked past Perumtrikkovil where Asan used to offer his Kottipadi Seva. “Wonderful Kedaragowlam”, I declared catching the faint akaaram coming from inside the temple. Jayan grabbed my hand “The Uchapooja is long over and the temple is closed”. I looked across my shoulder to the temple. There, perched on the top most sopanam leading to the sanctum, Asan’s edakka smiled at me.