M. A. Krishnadas brought the edakka to the masses' notice

‘Vande Mukunda Hare…..' and then the edakka notes, both tearing at your heartstrings. Remember this scene in ‘Devasuram'? It was M.G.Radhakrishnan singing and guess who played the edakka. Krishnadas, being featured here! And if you thought that the edakka was just another instrument used in Sopana Sangeetham then you must have changed your mind after listening to M. A. Krishnadas's piece in the film. The immense potential of this soft, traditional temple instrument, that is often drowned in the loud panchavadyam ensemble or on the Kathakali stage, is something that is rarely explored. And this is what makes Krishnadas so special. He has been hugely instrumental in making the edakka melodiously musical and adapting it to various genres of music.

He has been singularly responsible for making the edakka popular through films, albums, concerts, dance recitals and more. With the absence of any fixed key or fret, with the artiste wholly dependent on the pressure exerted by the palm to create the ‘swaras,' the edakka becomes an extremely tricky instrument to master. And to crystallise the music, to make it sing, Krishnadas has been hugely successful.

Gurukulam

“I'm proud to say that I studied in the rigorous ‘gurukulam' system. My uncle, Ramamangalam Rama Marar, was my guru. He was a big, strong man with huge hands. I began learning when I was five. Being woken up as early as two in the morning, still groggy, was terrible. I remember pleading with my mother, asking her to tell him to allow me to sleep longer. He was short-tempered and hit me hard with those strong hands when I made mistakes. Like any child I hated this training but looking back today I realise that my guru did this only for my sake. If I have achieved anything today it is only because of him,” says Krishnadas whose lineage can be traced back to Mundempally Krishna Marar, the legendary percussionist who finds mention in Kottarathil Sankunni's ‘Ithihyamala.'

Trained in almost all the traditional percussion instruments, Krishnadas took a fancy to the edakka. The routine ‘arangetram' was held when he was eight. And when his family thought he would study, find a job and settle down, Krishnadas had decided to cut a new path with the edakka. “I discontinued my college (Government Sanskrit College, Tripunithura) studies, said no to a job offer as an apprentice at the Cochin Refineries Limited then, and plunged fully into my tryst with the edakka. There was no going back.”

The initial years were tough. It was a struggle to establish, a style to be recognised. Apart from being a regular member of Chottanikara Narayana Marar's panchavadyam troupe and his daily duties at the Sree Poornathrayeesa Temple, Krishnadas began accompanying dancers. “Dance gave me a lot of space to experiment. It was my laboratory where I tested some of my innovations. During intervals I used to play a couple of semi-classical songs which was received well. This enhanced my confidence.”

With an innate taste for classical music, Krishnadas embarked to learn more. “I think developing listening skills is very important. I have always tried to listen to a lot of music, any kind. Slowly, I began to understand different ragas and also picked up some ‘kirtanas'. This I tried to reproduce on the edakka. I stay close to two cinema theatres. Every night, when there is silence all around, you could hear the Malayalam films songs from there. Those were days when I could not afford to buy a tape recorder. I used to listen to those songs and play them on my edakka.”

Growing in popularity, Krishnadas had ‘Tripunithura' prefixed to his name. “This just happened. I did not do it. Tripunithura is widely considered home to the arts and artistes. And for many who met me it came as no surprise that I came from this town. Organisations began using this before my name in their programme lists and this stuck,” explains Krishnadas who won this year's Pallavur Appu Marar Puraskaram, instituted by the State government.

The turning point in Krishnadas's career was his meeting with K. J. Yesudas. It opened a whole new world. “By late 80s I used to be busy playing for recordings. Once, at Tharangini Studios, Thiruvananthapuram, we were recording for an album that had music by Alleppey Ranganath. One song had a male-female chorus with ‘swaras' in the background. I was listening to them rehearse. When they took a break I played the ‘swaras' on the edakka. The music director who heard this was impressed and included this in the song. When Dasettan heard this he enquired who played the edakka and insisted that I be called for every recording after that. That was the beginning of a special relationship.”

Krishnadas also cherishes playing with Yesudas at Thunchan Parambu, Tirur. “Thinking of that event still sends shivers down my spine. Dasettan was to sing a song written by ONV and set to tune by G. Devarajan Master for a Kerala Day function. He specially sent for me to play with him. Before we got on stage he told me that he would sing in a particular ‘sruthi'. There was a huge crowd and pin drop silence. Only the two of us on stage, not even a ‘sruthi' box. When it was ready Dasettan looked at me and asked me to start. I was stunned for I thought he would begin and I needed to just follow him. I hesitated and Dasettan egged me on. I knew that this was a challenge for I had to set the right ‘sruthi' on my edakka. I prayed to all the gods and started. It went off well. Later, Dasettan had this recorded. Many months later when I met him and told him of that event, he told me that there was no problem and the ‘sruthi' was on the dot. It was a trial by fire.”

Krishnadas's career was given a huge boost when he was invited to Chennai for a lec-dem, followed by a concert, during the December season. “I met Ravi Sir (noted violinist V. V. Ravi) for the first time at All India Radio, Kozhikode, during a recording. He told me that he would do everything to have me perform in Chennai. A couple of years went by. I came to know that members of the Sabha were not keen. But Ravi Sir persisted and in 2002 I performed at the Ragasudha Hall, Mylapore, under the aegis of Nada Inbam. I think the audience were struck by the purity of ‘sruthi' and the singular tone of the instrument. They said that they relished the Natta raga I played and some even asked me to explain the nuances. I was accompanied by violin and the mridangam. At the end of it, when the organisers said that they did not realise that the edakka had such possibilities, I was overwhelmed.”

Films

Very soon offers from films came pouring in and Krishnadas was flitting from recording studio to studio, being part of many memorable songs and re-recordings. His most ‘visible' one, in ‘Devasuram,' set the tone for the most dramatic scenes picturised on Oduvil Unnikrishnan in the film. The rendition was so poignant that it lifted the scene to great heights. His edakka was also heard in films like ‘Ashtapadi,' ‘Kamaladalam,' ‘Kalyanaraman,' ‘Dada Sahib,' ‘Vadakkunnathan', and the latest, ‘Urumi.'

Krishnadas has also played in many Western albums like ‘Atma' and ‘The Banned' by John Anthony, gone on stage ‘live' with numerous bands and also collaborated with a number of fusion groups.

Krishnadas is not one to rest on his laurels. His experiments with the edakka go on. Recently, he and his dancer-wife Shylaja, a disciple of Kalamandalam Chandrika Menon, (who is a teacher at Bhavan's Adarsh Vidyalaya) performed a Mohiniyattam piece which had the critics sit up and take note. “She danced with no other back up except the edakka. I played ‘Deva deva kalayami…' and with not even a basic tala, or any supporting vocal. It was the result of so many months of hard work. This was perhaps the first-ever instance of such a dance performance.”

He is planning a lot more on his small edakka, which has much more to offer.