Coronavirus outbreak: Percussionists and musicians of melams are finding it tough to sustain their livelihood as annual temple festivals are cancelled

As temple festivals are cancelled, a pall of gloom has set over percussionists of melams

As temple festivals are cancelled, a pall of gloom has set over percussionists of melams   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

The virus outbreak has turned the lives of many of the artistes topsy-turvy

Melam, panchavadyam and thayambaka have long been associated with the rhythm of Kerala. However, except for a privileged few, artistes associated with the traditional temple arts have had it rough when compared to their fellow musicians in tinsel world or elsewhere. Once upon a time, even some of the best-known percussionists in the field used to lead a hand-to-mouth existence despite their busy schedules during the performance season that stretches from October to May.

However, in less than a quarter of a century, both career graphs and income of percussionists and artistes who play traditional musical instruments such as kuzhal, kompu and elathalam (cymbals) registered an upgrading thanks to a sizeable increase in the number of temple festivals. As they gained visibility, their stature grew as well. As collective ensembles, melam and panchavadyam ensure work and wages for a considerable number of artistes. Even for thayambaka, a highly individualised solo recital on the chenda, support from other musicians on the chenda and the elathalam are a must.

According to thayambaka maestro Kallekulangara Achuthankutty, playing the instruments is much more than just a way of life for many of his fellow musicians; it is a form of self-expression. And lesser-known percussionists put in just as much effort into their performance as that of their helmsmen. Although there is a noticeable difference in the degree of recognition they receive, unlike that of renowned drummers such as Mattannoor Sankarankutty Marar or Peruvanam Kuttan Marar, others do earn a consistent income to support their families during the festival season. Some kompu and elathalam players residing in rural areas, however, work as painters or autorickshaw drivers during the off-season to supplement their income.

Now, the Coronavirus outbreak has turned the lives of many of the artistes topsy-turvy. As annual temple festivals stand cancelled, a pall of gloom has descended upon them. A video-footage of a Coronavirus-infected tourist from Europe socialising with the gathering at this year’s Kuttanalloor Pooram has sent shock-waves through the community of artistes and rasikas.

“Due to the outbreak, Peruvanam and Aarattupuzha poorams, both in Thrissur district, which would have been held in April, will be confined to minimal rituals inside the temples. If this scenario continues, the Thrissur Pooram will most likely not be held,” says melam maestro Peruvanam Kuttan Marar.

Institutional training is almost unheard of for temple percussionists. Their training has always been informal, following the lines of the age-old guru-shishya parambara. Sans institutional or individual patronage, indigenous percussionists do not find it easy.

“Even some of the front-ranking percussionists are unable to cope with the new crisis. For instance, eminent thimila player Parakkad Thankappa Marar and his wife, Dhanalakshmi, are under medication for certain health issues. Their sons are well-known thimila players but the annulment of the temple festivities have put the family in a financial crisis,” says Kodakara Ramesh, secretary, Kerala KshetraVadya Kala Academy.

Mayannoor Gopalakrishnan has been a constant presence in most of the famed melams as a valamthala player for years. He says: “I don’t have any other source of income. I have no idea how to deal with this testing time.” Kombu player Pazhambalakode Ramakrishnan was looking forward to the melams in the months of April and May, so that he could save up for the monsoon. Puthukkad Vijayan, an elathalam player in melams and panchavadyam, has been struggling to reconstruct his house for several years. Now living in a rented apartment with his family, he has no words to express his disappointment.

Says Achuthankutty: “Perhaps, artistes attached to the temples under the Malabar Devaswom Board are the most affected. They have no steady income. Annual festival programmes held in these temples are the only major source of income for them. With the festivals called off, they have nothing to fall back on.”

With the looming economic crisis, the fate of such freelance artistes are grim. Kuttan Marar suggests that the government introduce special interest-free, long-term loans for the artistes. Even if the pandemic is contained in the near future, it is doubtful if the festivals will be held this year. Several talented melam artistes are staring at gloomy prospects till the flag goes up for festivals next year.

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Printable version | Mar 31, 2020 7:59:26 PM |

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