The artist’s cascading movements and timber as he played the ilathalam were well appreciated.
Minutes after he was ceremonially handed over a pair of cymbals in front of the deity, Kummath Venugopalan performed in the temple with which his family has had ties for generations.
The debut was disastrous: the 11-year-old boy completely missed a set of chimes that is the hallmark of the ritualistic chenda concert for which he played the weighty ilathalam.
“I kept sounding thi-thai in place of thi-thi-thai,” he recalls the half-a-century-old incident where he was told to join a chenda melam at the neighbourhood Bhagavati shrine in Cherpu, south of Thrissur. “None had anyway taught me how to play the ilathalam.”
Soon he grasped the dynamics of his metal instrument under his uncle Kummath Appu Nair, and the teenager began gaining prominence in Kerala’s ethnic orchestra circuits. Venu, as he came to be called, was only 15 when he donned the role of the lead ilathalam player at a more elaborate melam formatted on the six-beat panchari.
That was at Mulangunnathukavu, further up of Thrissur.
The “unexpected promotion” was courtesy the decision of maverick drummer Kallattu Appukutta Kurup. “There was some exigency. Aputtettan, also a local hero, said I’d stand behind the main chenda man.”
There is a streak of trademark swagger still left in Venu as he narrates such good old stories — in a feeble sound and contorted pronunciation. At 63 today, the artist doesn’t play the ilathalam: he suffered a stroke that has left him paralysed on the right side of his body for 11 years and confined his life to the four walls of his tile-roofed house.
Notes his son T.K. Devanand, a chenda player who recently passed out of Kalamandalam: “Father was returning from Kuttanellur (east of Thrissur) after taking part in a melam in 2002 when he felt uneasy in the wee hours.” Chips in Venu’s mother Kochamani Amma, a Kaikottikali artiste: “By afternoon, he became partly immobile.” Scholars lament the sudden exit of Venu from the scene.
Aesthete T.N. Vasudevan recounts wistfully the artist’s cascading movements and timber as he played thi-thi-thai on the ilathalam in the middle phase of the first chapter of the panchari melam.
No different are responses from fellow artistes. Melam maestro Peruvanam Kuttan Marar salutes Venu’s sincerity on the field. “He had been a good organiser as well. Venu was instrumental in founding a forum of melam artistes,” notes the Padma award-winning celebrity who lives on the other side of Cherpu town. Also, a Kshetravadya Kala Academy incepted in 1992 with Venu as the secretary has virtually crippled in the past one decade. On his part, Venu has been getting a small monthly amount as artiste’s pension from the State government.
The low profile apart, the artiste has retained his talkative spirit. “There is no major venue in central Kerala where I have not participated for a melam, panchavadyam or thayambaka. The famed festivals at Peruvanam, Arattupuzha, Thrissur, Edakunni, Irinjalakuda, Tripunithura, Uthrali, Nenmara…” he trails off. The first remuneration? “Ah, two-and-a-half annas,” he smiles. “As a boy, after playing the ilathalam on Karthika Vilakku at Palliseri temple (in the locality).” Melam artiste Peruvanam Gopalakrishnan notes Venu initially fought to return to the art circuit post the illness. “Sad.…Now he seems to have given up.” Whatever, Venu keeps getting medals and awards of various grades from cultural organisations far and near. For him, they stir up memories.