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“In the past we had a handful of knowledgeable audience and a few permanent venues. But now things have changed. Beyond the traditional venues we have new places on our schedules. The chenda or the melam , has cast its magic across the state and beyond. The number of people who now enjoy the melam has increased manifold,” feels Kuttan Marar.

The best went unrecognised

The biggest challenge this art form faced in the past was its inability to rope in youngsters. It was never considered a potential career which would give the artiste a steady income. Even the best of them went unrecognised, it was reduced to being a sort of family tradition, and some of those who were into it took up otherprofessions, while some were driven to suicide.

“Yes, there was a phase when a lot of artistes left the field. In fact, my father (Peruvanam Appu Marar) did not want to take the risk with me. He insisted that I go to school and the chenda just a part-time obsession. The revival happened sometime during the beginning of my career, with my generation. In between we must have lost some 30 years or so when the melam became weak.”

Kuttan Marar and others of his generation turned this ‘gap’ to their advantage. “People began to look at us with hope. There was a renewed demand for the art, we began to get recognised and even demand our remuneration.”

The melam itself is a wonder. Artistes get together, some of them meeting for the first time or after a long interval, without rehearsal, with no conductor, no notations, simply following a leader’s definite signs or gestures to create a spontaneous musical explosion.

“I have never felt this to be a wonder. Nor do I believe it is the success of a leader. It is the amazing composition that the masters have structured that makes it so. The structure is easy to follow and it is what a chenda player learns. Individually the melam is simple as each instrument needs to play just a small piece. But it is when they get together that the wonder unfolds. For us it is work, like it is in any profession.”

A ‘pramani’ (leader) of the ensemble calls for individual virtuosity, man management skills and the ability to lead the group without deviating from the traditional structure of the melam . It is he who controls the measure, speed of time, the whole performance. Kuttan Marar has been the leader in some of the most important melam venues for more than three decades now.

“A lot depends on the venue. For the famous Elanjithara Melam at the Thrissur Pooram, 200-300 artistes come together. Here my role is limited as all the artistes reach there without fail. For the other events I need to organise the group. Some of them have been with me for a while and so they know some of our regular programmes. But I cannot have a group of my own nor can I assure them job security. This is because the requirement for the number of artistes differs from venue to venue. Man management is tough.”

Apart from melam, Kuttan Marar has collaborated with artistes like Umayalpuram Sivaraman, Attakalari and with other reputed artistes on the thayambaka (the solo form of the chenda). “I know my limitations, especially on the thayambaka . I still perform regularly, but I don’t think I get that freedom, that enjoyment that I get from the melam . Of course, these occasional performances gave me the golden chance to work with and meet great artistes. But it does not give me that kind of satisfaction that the melam gives me. Maybe if such opportunities come up during the off-season I’ll think about it,” says Kuttan Marar who politely expressed his inability to join Sri Lankan singer MIA for a proposed concert in Kochi.

Awarded the Padmashri in 2011, Kuttan Marar considers this a huge responsibility and recognition for his art. “I’m not an experimenter, or a teacher. I’m just one who is trying hard to preserve what has been handed over to me by the masters. All the awards have been recognition for the chenda not for my personal performance. It is for teamwork. I accept every honour on behalf of my team,” says Kuttan Marar as he straps the chenda on his shoulder and moves to join his team for another few hours of mesmerising music.

I’m not an experimenter, or a teacher. I’m just one who is trying hard to preserve what has been handed over to me by the masters

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