Delhiite chenda artiste Panjal Unnikrishnan is on his annual holiday to native Kerala, this time after the government conferred him with an official ‘pravasi’ tag

Summer has peaked in his resident city upcountry, and Panjal Unnikrishnan is again on a visit to native Kerala. It has been 45 years since the chenda exponent left for Delhi, but the annual monsoon break in his village this time has turned out to be special for the sexagenarian.

Latest recognition

For, it is Unnikrishnan’s first visit to his State after the government conferred him with an official tag to his artistic excellence as a non-resident Keralite. The Kalamandalam-trained drummer recently won the brand-new Pravasi Kalasree award instituted by the Kerala Sangeet Natak Akademi.

Back in his ancestral house, Unnikrishnan invariably makes it a point to visit his alma mater. After all, the performing-arts institute in Cheruthurthy is not far from Panjal — both places being just south of the Bharathapuzha along the border of Thrissur and Palakkad districts.

Remembrance day

“There is this remembrance day coming up there in memory of my guru. On May 28,” Unnikrishnan says, referring to the 89th birth anniversary of chenda genius Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Poduval. “That is when I now plan to meet my Kathakali friends (of various departments).”

The words may sound one of an ex-student’s romantic wistfulness to relive an eventful past, albeit briefly. But Unnikrishnan’s comments are propped by unmistakable reality.

“Artistes of my generation who taught in Kalamandalam have long retired. Only that I always liked to retain certain links — old and new,” points out the 69-year-old percussionist who studied the instrument during 1957-62.

“Don’t forget that my student days were in the old campus on the banks of the river. There’s no sight in the new Kalamandalam that can stir up memories for me,” adds the artiste, who was primarily trained by Kalamandalam Achunni Poduval after being initiated into the world of chenda by Thamattur Sankaran Nair.

Life in contrast

For Unnikrishnan, a Delhiite since 1967 when he joined the International Centre for Kathakali (ICK) and went on to become its principal, life in general has been in complete contrast with the first quarter century he spent in Kerala.

“As a young man in Kerala, my artistic activities were confined to playing the chenda for Kathakali and participating in traditional percussion ensembles,” he recalls. Soon after the Kalamandalam course, Krishnankutty Poduval roped him in his Vellinezhi Sahrudaya Sangham that aimed at encouraging youngsters in the field of Kathakali. “That was excellent exposure,” recalls the artiste, who also worked in Unnayi Warrier Smaraka Kalanilayam in Irinjalakuda off Thrissur and at Muthappan Kathakali Yogam at Parassinikadavu in North Malabar.

Unnikrishnan’s career in Delhi broadened his profile, as he began to play background drumming for Mohiniyattam, Bharatanatyam, Kuchipudi and Kathak besides for fusion dances and collaborations with north Indian and foreign drummers of instruments such as tabla and Taiko. Plus, there are lecture-demonstrations Unnikrishnan leads, widening the reach of Kerala arts to States in the country’s west, north and east.

Simultaneously, he ensures that his prime role as a Kathakali chenda artiste has never weakened over time.

“It is tough to retain your form in an art when you are far from its original habitat. It warrants hard work, determination and, above all, genuine love for your specialised art,” says Unnikrishnan, who retired from ICK in 2010 and was endowed with a senior fellowship by the Union Ministry of Culture four years prior to it.

As always, he continues to perform Thayambaka, the solo chenda concert, besides teaming up with Panchavadyam artistes to play the musical edakka. The foreign tours continue.

Life goes on

In fact, eagerness to meet own teachers was what initially used to woo Unnikrishnan to Kalamandalam during his Kerala break from the national capital.

“They are no more. But then, a new crop of artistes has come up,” he points out. “Some of them are so young that they haven’t even heard my name. Doesn’t matter; life goes on nonetheless.”

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