A voice that brought Kathakali plays to life

Venmani Haridas   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The late Kathakali singer Kalamandalam Venmani Haridas was once performing Melappadam, a musical ensemble that is often a prelude to a Kathakali performance, in Mumbai. While singing the navabhava phrase in ragamalika, Haridas came up with a gentle gamaka-rich Suddha Dhanyasi alapana. The drum beats became softer and there was complete silence in the auditorium. Tabla maestro Ustad Zakir Hussain, who was seated in the front row along with other luminaries of the music world, walked up on to the stage and touched Haridas’ feet.

This episode narrated by Kalamandalam Vinod, who accompanied Haridas that day, was one of the many shared at Harismrithi, a panel discussion and demonstration on the musical genius of Haridas, who died on September 17, 2005, at the age of 59.

Creative partnership

Kathakali vocalist Nedumbally Rammohan, who moderated the discussion, started by briefly tracing the evolution of Kathakali music from Venkitakrishna Bhagavatar in the early part of the last century to Unnikrishna Kurup in the 1980s. The focus of the discussion, however, was the influence of Haridas, and his creative partnership with Kalamandalam Sankaran Embranthiri and Kalamandalam Hyderali, the trio who dominated Kathakali music for a few decades.


Nalacharitam   | Photo Credit: R_Shivaji Rao

The panellists — Kottakkal Madhu, Kalamandalam Babu Namboothiri, Kalamandalam Hareesh and Kalamandalam Vinod — recalled their experience as sankidi or vocal support to Haridas. They sang the various padams made popular by him in dance dramas such as Kuchelavrittam, Kiratham, Karnasapadham, Dakshayagam and Nalacharitam. They also spoke about how Haridas, besides singing in Padi and Khandaram, conventionally used in Kathakali, introduced Carnatic ragas that enhanced the dance viewing experience. Sadanam Ramakrishnan on the chenda, Kalamandalam Venu on the maddalam and Sadanam Jithin on the idakka provided percussion support.

Penchant for perfection

Rammohan highlighted Haridas’ penchant for perfection. “He sang ‘Kalayami Sumathe’ in Kuchelavrittam in a ragamalika of Saramati, Bahudari and Amritavarshini. The lighter piece, ‘Enthoru Chitramidam’, in the same play, was rendered in Kavadichindhu to suit the scene where the vriddha or maid is wonderstruck by Kuchela suddenly gaining wealth.”

The aim, Harish added, was to make music that suited the story and situation. Haridas could transform even an insignificant padam special — for example ‘Manavendra’ in Uttaraswayamvaram, where the terrified cowherds appeal to Prince Uttaran, stood out in his voice.


Uttaraswayamvaram   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

The picture of Haridas that emerged at the session was one of a prodigious talent. Though soft-spoken, he was never shy of experimenting. A keen listener, he imbibed much from his gurus and peers, and from different genres of music. He gained exposure in Hindustani music during his stay at Mrinalini Sarabhai’s Darpana Academy in Ahmedabad. His singing stood out for its perfect pitch and modulation, its masterly gamakas and the right emphasis on words to convey appropriate emotions.

Babu Namboodiri pointed to Haridas’ expertise in using swarakshara, where the swara and the sahitya converge. Referring to his treatment of ‘Mathale nisamaya’ in Kalakeyavadham, Babu said Haridas stuck to tradition when it came to the highly stylised and structured plays of Kottayam Thampuran.

According to Kottakkal Madhu, Haridas entered Kalamandalam during the glorious era of music and gained immensely through his interactions with masters Neelakantan Nambeesan, Gangadharan, Madambi Subramanian Namboodiri, Embranthiri and Hyderali.

Rammohan said that even today Kathakali organisers give him old tapes, requesting him to sing in the ragas used by Haridas, a testimony to how his music lives on.

The programme, organised by Vazhenkada Kunchunair Smaraka Trust and Venmani Haridas Anusmarana Samiti, can be watched on the Trust’s YouTube channel and Facebook page.

The author, a retired journalist, writes on Kerala’s performing arts.

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Printable version | Nov 24, 2020 10:01:51 AM |

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