Achievement The Pallavur Appu Marar Puraskaram of the Kerala Government this year was shared by Karavettedathu Narayana Marar and Tripunithura Krishna Das, both of whom hail from Ramamangalam. G.S. Paul

T he sleepy village of Ramamangalam is located on the banks of the Muvattupuzha River. What makes it noteworthy among myriad villages in Ernakulam district is that it is the birthplace of the legendary musician Shatkala Govinda Marar, a contemporary of the music Trinity and Swati Tirunal. A musician in Swati's court, Govinda Marar was an itinerant minstrel. Incidentally, he was the only Keralite who had the privilege of singing in front of Tyagaraja.

Ramamangalam boasts a rich tradition of percussion art, thanks mainly to the large number of families belonging to the Marar community who live in this village. It may be a fluke that the Pallavur Appu Marar Puraskaram of the Kerala Government this year was shared by two members of this community here. While Karavettedathu Narayana Marar is a name to reckon with in the art of panchavadyam, Tripunithura Krishna Das is an acclaimed exponent of the edakka, the percussion instrument that is unique to Kerala.

Unmatched humility

True to his unmatched humility, Narayana Marar, a scion of the family of Shatkala Govinda Marar, was quite calm when he was informed about his being honoured with the Pallavur Puraskaram, the highest accolade that a percussion artiste in Kerala can aspire for. “I am extremely happy since this is the first recognition from a government agency, including the Akademis, so far,” he said. It is true that Marar has been honoured by several temples and aficionados across Kerala.

Few are the temple festivals in Kerala that the septuagenarian Narayana Marar has not performed over the past five decades and more. He has been a striking presence in the Thrissur Pooram for 28 years in succession, 25 years in Thripunithura Aaraattu and other such similar stints in Guruvayur, Nenmmara vela, Sabarimala, Ambalapuzha festivals and so on. All these had been in the company of doyens such as Annamanada Achutha Marar, Aalipparambu Brothers, Kuzhur Narayana Marar, to mention only a few. His services were also sought by Malayalis in Uttar Pradesh, Visakhapattanam, Mumbai, Chennai and Bangalore for many years.

Narayana Marar had the privilege of learning under a crop of acharyas of Ramamangalam. At the age of seven, he was initiated into the customary performances by Padikkal Govinda Kurup. For his firm grip on the timila, he owes much to Kunjikrishna Marar. He honed his skills in Panchaari melam under the guidance of Vadakkedathu Appu Marar. Narayana Marar's debut was at the Peumthrikkovil of Ramamangalam where his legendary ancestor Shatkala Govinda Marar used to present ‘kottippaadiseva.'

Owing to health reasons, Narayana Marar has stopped participating in performances. But he devotes his time grooming the next generation in the divine art of percussion.

An edakka artiste is being selected for the Pallavur Appu Marar Puraskaram for the first time since it was begun in 2003. This assumes much significance as the instrument was very dear to Appu Marar, the pioneer who had tapped its musical potentialities to the fullest. And selection of Tripunithura Krishna Das for the Puraskaram further vindicates the unassailable role of the edakka among the varied percussion instruments of Kerala.

Notwithstanding the prefix ‘Tripunithura' to his name, Krishna Das hails from the Mundempally family of artistes in Ramamangalam. He belongs to the lineage of Mundempally Krishna Marar, the legendary percussionist referred to in Kottarathil Sankunni's ‘Ithihyamaala.' It was a gurukula form of training under Ramamangalam Rama Marar that moulded Krishna Das into a consummate artiste. An insatiable urge for music from early childhood prompted him to try the ragas and kirtanas on the edakka, which finally turned him into a concert musician on the instrument. He is perhaps the only artiste who has staged an arangettam for an edakka concert. Interestingly, he has to his credit a couple of albums of such concerts that has gone into several editions.

Purity of sruti

What makes the edakka an intricate instrument to play is the absence of any fixed key or fret. One has to depend solely on the pressure exerted by the palm for the selection of swaras. For the same reason, it has to be self taught. But a keen sense of sruti is a must. The instrument is highly sensitive to temperature variations too.

It was a performance in Chennai during the December season a few years ago that served as a break in his career. He was invited by violinist V.V. Ravi. The purity of sruti and the singular tone of the instrument enchanted rasikas. They remained spellbound as Krishna Das played Carnatic ragas, accompanied by the violin and the mridangam. Invitations poured in from the film world soon. ‘Ashtapadi,' ‘Devasuram,' ‘Kamaladalam,' ‘Kalyanaraman,' ‘Dada Sahib,' ‘Achaneyanenikkishtam' and ‘Vadakkunnathan' are some of the films for which he played the edakka.

A member of the audition committee of All India Radio, Krishna Das is also a member of the Kerala Chalachitra Akademi.