Percussion maestro Mattannoor Sankarankutty Marar has beaten an individualistic path to the top. He talks about his sound decisions
“After all these years, I feel that I’ve only just begun to understand the nuances of the chenda,” he says, with uncharacteristic solemnity, his fingers tapping a sure rhythm on the antique brass betel leaf holder that he takes everywhere. It’s not something you would expect to hear from a veteran percussionist whose name is now synonymous with the chenda. Mattannoor Sankarankutty Marar or simply Mattannoor, as he is popularly known, is arguably Kerala’s most well-known traditional percussionist, equally renowned for his artistry on the thayambaka (a solo recital on the chenda) as he is in the role of a Pramani (chief), leading tens of artistes, sometimes hundreds, in a Melam.
The maverick Mattannoor has almost single-handedly given the instrument – and Kerala percussion too – a global stage. Meanwhile, his playful beats on the chenda, with which he is forever testing the boundaries of tradition, have given him acclaim and criticism in equal measure.
Having been born into a family of traditional percussionists in the village of Mattannoor in Kannur district, the veteran artiste says that it was inevitable that he too answered the call of the chenda. “My earliest memories are linked to the sounds of the chenda, the edakka and the conch from the Sree Mahadeva Temple, adjacent to my ancestral home. I never really thought about doing anything else with my life but percussion. I don’t know… maybe I would have worked in a bank like my father, Kunjikrishnan Marar, who is also a chenda vidwan and my first guru. Or maybe I would have become a footballer. I like football. I used to play football,” says Mattannoor, breaking into one of his signature guffaws as he looks sceptically at his own portly but well-built frame.
“You need to be sturdy to carry the weight of the chenda for hours on end…,” says the 59-year-old, with a twinkle in his eyes.
Heir to a percussion legacy he may be, but Mattannoor says that he learnt the chenda the hard way, through years of struggle and hardship. “For 12 years from the age of eight, while studying chenda at the Gandhi Seva Sadan, Perur, I lived on a stipend and subsisted on the wheat upma served at the hostel. And afterwards, I spent several years lugging my chenda, which I used to carry in a gunny sack, all around the State, surviving on the largesse of festival organisers. However, I was fortunate that I had the opportunity to learn from maestros Pallassana Chandramannadiar and Sadanam Vasudevan at the Sadanam, and later hone my skills with doyens of thayambaka such as Thiruvekappura Rama Pothuval, Pallasana Padmanabha Marar, Pallavoor Appu Marar, Chithali Rama Marar, Thrithala Kunjikrishna Pothuval, Thrithala Kesavan, Aaliparambil Sivarama Pothuval, and so on,” explains the artiste.
Hard work and determination, he says, are the keys to his success. “The rigorous training at Sadanam, which began well before dawn and continued till late at night, inculcated discipline in me. It’s because of that discipline, hammered into my soul, that even today I can play for hours on end with nary a break in between.”
That and his keen ability to think out-of-the-box, perhaps? With a grin, he agrees: “In this day and age when everyone is good or great, if we want to stand out, we have to think and act laterally. It should be as much an investigation into the nuances of our craft as it should be an exploration of the limits of the self. I walked with the masters and I made it a point to imbibe the best from them and then sought to make that knowledge my own. For example, my idea to play the ‘Adanthakooru’ in the slowest tempo possible. I thought to myself, if Appu Marar can bring down the pace of the kooru from say fourth to third gear, what would happen if I drove the chenda in first gear? Eureka!”
AT HOME WITH TEACHING
The culturally rich Vellinezhi in Palakkad is now home to Mattannoor. He shifted to the village 22 years ago to teach chenda at the Vellinezhi Government High School (as part of the school’s Kathakali course). “I enjoy teaching. I am a strict disciplinarian, though,” he says.
Mattannoor retired in 2010 and with that the curtains came down on the chenda part of the course. “There are many students who are willing to learn Kathakali but no teachers,” he laments. “Those vacant posts for teachers need to be filled and Kathakali introduced as a discipline in more government schools. Such a move will be of help to many artistes to earn a livelihood and also foster a new generation of rasikas.”
TRIPLE THE FUN
Mattannoor has struck up enviable combinations with the likes of the late, legendary percussionists Pallavoor Appu Marar and Maniyan Marar, and fusion concerts with veteran mridangist Umayalpuram Sivaraman, percussionist Sivamani, and so on. These days, though, the veteran artiste says that he enjoys performing the ‘triple thayambaka’ with his sons and up-and-coming chenda artistes Mattannoor Sreekanth and Mattannoor Sreeraj. “They are both doing me proud. I never insisted that they follow in my footsteps or even learn the chenda, for that matter. I wanted them to complete their education. I only insisted that they be true to whatever career they choose. Nowadays, practice is family time. They are my sounding boards when I want to try out new ennams. Some say I am promoting my sons. I say it is the duty of a father to do so. After all, which father doesn’t want the best for his children?” asks Mattannoor. The artiste and his wife, Bharathi, also have a daughter, Sharanya, and are grandparents to three.