Chenda maestro Mattannoor Sankarankutty Marar’s beats of ebullience

Mattannoor Sankarankutty Marar

Mattannoor Sankarankutty Marar   | Photo Credit: S GOPAKUMAR

The master percussionist speaks about his early influences, experimental contributions to the percussion scene in Kerala and well-crafted Thayambaka treats

Amongst the diverse indigenous percussion-ensembles of Kerala, Thayambaka, with its highly individualistic style, is deemed to be the youngest. But its reach over the last century far outweighs that of melam and Panchavadyam.

In the early 1970s, a boy from north Malabar relocated to Pathirippala, one of the culturally-vibrant villages in south Malabar, where he joined the Kathakali school, Gandhisevasadanam, as a student of Kathakali chenda. He had no idea that he was soon to watch with bated breath the Thayambaka recitals of a galaxy of indomitable percussionists in the temple-festivals of Valluvanad. In less than a decade, the boy grew up to become one of the pre-eminent chenda percussionists in Kerala. Today, Mattannoor Sankarankutty Marar is synonymous with the chenda all over the world.

Mattannoor Sankarankutty Marar during a Thayambaka performance

Mattannoor Sankarankutty Marar during a Thayambaka performance   | Photo Credit: S MAHINSHA

Mattannoor’s fame and fortune are the result of long, gruelling practice and an unerring instinct for rhythm. Mattannoor endeared himself to thousands of percussion lovers within India and abroad mainly by means of his twin faculties of timbre-sensitivity and the musicality of improvisations. He commands an authority over swara structures during performances, thanks to his dexterity with sticks and his hand. In his Thayambaka recitals, Mattannoor harmonises the beats of the Malamakkavil school and the bravura adopted by titans of the East Palakkad genre. He is well-conversant with Kathakali chenda, melam and edakka as well. Incidentally, he had a two-year training on the edakka under stalwart Pattarath Sankara Marar, father of legendary percussionist Pallavoor Appu Marar.

Melam and Thayambaka were almost unknown to temples in south Kerala till Mattannoor familiarised these genres of music, much to the delight of music lovers who were only conversant with nadaswaram and vocal concerts. He, along with his two sons, Sreekanth and Sreeraj, has been presenting Thayambaka in those temples for years, ensuring a comfortable space for this highly sophisticated form of solo recital on the chenda.

New choreographies
  • Sruthi Melam
  • Vadyamanjari
  • Ragavadyalaya
  • Panchari Panchavadyam
  • Rhythm of Kerala
  • Melappadam (Chenda, Maddalam & Thavil)
  • Documentary film
  • Mattannoor Sankarankutty by Shanavas Khan

Mattannoor redefined the role and significance of the chenda as a musical instrument capable of striking a chord with fusion music and in jugalbandi, generally meant for the uninitiated public. So-called puritans have come down heavily on the kind of professionalism he has brought into the temple percussion tradition of Kerala.

They have also been vehemently critical of the Irukol Panchari (playing Panchari Melam with two sticks instead of with a stick and hand, a tradition in vogue in central Kerala), which Mattannoor substantiated as being much more pragmatic. He confronts all criticism with an unfading smile and measured words that exude humour, conviction and confidence.

Excerpts from an interview:

What made you become a student of Gandhisevasadanam as a 12-year-old?

My childhood was immersed in temple music. Soon after learning the liturgical aspects of music from my father, Kunhikrishna Marar, I was fortunate to study Paani (percussion music for propitiating the deities during temple festivals) under maestro Puliyambilli Sankara Marar. It was the eminent maddalam player Kunhirama Marar who handed over the chenda to me for my arangettam. My uncle’s son, Sadanam Ramachandran, persuaded my father to enrol me at the Sadanam Kathakali School as a student of Kathakali chenda.

Mattannoor Sankarankutty Marar receiving the Padma Shri from then President Pratibha Patil in 2009 in New Delhi

Mattannoor Sankarankutty Marar receiving the Padma Shri from then President Pratibha Patil in 2009 in New Delhi   | Photo Credit: S Subramanium

To what extent did the cultural and artistic ambience of Valluvanad and east Palakkad influence you?

At the Sadanam, for a year, I was under the tutelage of Chandra Mannadiyar Asan. Next year onwards, my training continued under Sadanam Vasudevan. The profundity of strokes and Irattivattam (fast-temp beats towards the finale of a melapaddam) of Mannadiyar Asan were unsurpassed. I have imbibed as much as I could from the creativity and imagination of Vasuvettan. Outside the kalari, I got opportunities to listen to the astounding discourses on the chenda by Pallavoor Appu Marar and Pookattiri Divakara Poduval. Their concerts were strikingly different from those I was familiar with in my home-village. Valluvanad and its immediate precincts changed my mindscape and shaped my identity.

Did the training you had in Kathakali chenda redefine your approach to and understanding of the Thayambaka?

Of course, it did. The interrelation between bhava evocation and tonal subtleties in Kathakali melam were a revelation to me. Both these percolated into my performance. Voice, not noise, is the underlying tenet of what I have done as a Thayambaka and melam player. Pallavoor Maniyan Marar’s resounding beats on the thimila and his brother Kunhikutta Marar’s command over the thimila, chenda and edakka were awesome. Tutelage under Pattarath Sankara Marar, a colossus of the edakka, compelled me to grasp the ins and outs of this marvellous small percussion instrument.

Major awards and honours
  • Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Academy Award – 1996
  • Kerala Kalamandalam Award – 2004
  • Padma Shri – 2009
  • Central Sangeet Natak Akademy Award – 2012
  • Kerala Kalamandalalam Kalacharya Puraskaram – 2016

Sruthi melam is your exclusive choreography. While our percussion and wind instruments in general are anti-thetical to the concept and application of sruthi (pitch), what made you venture into such a challenging choreography?

Once, after playing melam for the Thrissur Pooram, I came across a well-wisher and Carnatic music connoisseur near my home. While appreciating the melam he had heard through All India Radio, he was curious to know about a strange, out-of-pitch sound that pierced through the performance intermittently. He was referring to the kuzhal (a mini trumpet). This made me think about Sruthi melam.

I discussed the idea with well-known kuzhal player Panamanna Manoharan who suggested Pallavoor Krishnankutty’s name to support my venture. My attempt has been to equate the sruthi of the kuzhal and the kombu in the melam. Tuning the chenda to a set sruthi is tough though not impossible.

What specifically is your contribution to the genre of Kerala’s percussion music?

Geniuses of yore did their best to push the boundaries of the tradition of percussion music during their time. Fortunately, I have had several opportunities to learn from the recitals of a few among them. For instance, I was awestruck by Pattarath Sankara Marar’s playing of one full talavattam (rhythmic cycle) on the edakka immediately after the edakaalam (mid tempo) of the Panchavadyam at the Thrissur Pooram decades back.

The intelligibility and melody of the swaras he produced on the edakka remain unrivalled. Similarly, I had listened to the fabulous nata (varied phrase) tha ka thi mi tha ka tha ki ta that Thrithala Kesava Poduwal played in the pathikaalam (slow tempo) of Thayambaka. Appuvettan’s (Pallavoor Appu Marar) manodharmams (inventiveness) in the slow Adanthakooru (the principal segment of a Thayambaka recital set to 7 beats) and the torrential urulukol (slow, medium and fast strikes of the sticks on the chenda) of Kottakkal Kuttan Marar Asan in Melappadam are still fresh in my memory. In south Kerala, Ayamkudy Kuttappa Marar is a percussionist whom I hold in high esteem.

With propriety, I have tried to assimilate the artistry of my predecessors. My own contribution to Thayambaka is inconsequential in comparison to theirs. I might have brought into the field a certain amount of professionalism and marketing. Outside India, tabla is possibly the only instrument people are accustomed with. Over the last several decades, I have been striving to see that chenda is granted legitimate space in the global cultural map.

Mattannoor Sankarankutty Marar during a Thayambaka performance

Mattannoor Sankarankutty Marar during a Thayambaka performance   | Photo Credit: S MAHINSHA

You had performed a jugalbandi with Ustad Zakir Hussain in Thrissur. The chenda and the tabla do not share much in common. It seemed you two were engaged in a loose dialogue of swaras that were aesthetically not convincing although the crowd was carried away.

A limitation of the chenda is that it lacks gamakam, while the tabla has it in abundance. We didn’t have any rehearsal ahead of the recital and did everything impromptu. It was more like an experiment. The mridangam and the edakka would better suit the tabla for a jugalbandi.

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Printable version | Jun 7, 2020 9:58:38 AM |

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