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Annamanada Parameswara Marar (1952–2019) towered among Kerala’s percussionists

Marar (centre) was a regular at the famous Thrissur Pooram, anchoring around 150 panchavadyam concerts each season.

Marar (centre) was a regular at the famous Thrissur Pooram, anchoring around 150 panchavadyam concerts each season.   | Photo Credit: Akshay Shenoy

Even with acute diabetes hindering the free movement of his bruised fingers, the doyen anchored a 90-minute panchavadyam just five weeks before his death

You want to learn some art?” Annamanada Parameswara Marar posed the question to his son when he was in middle school.

The father’s mastery of the timila was unquestioned, his views on the instrument deeply rooted in classicism, but he wasn’t one to be bound by the convention of passing down the lineage, father to son. The boy was able to choose freely, and he opted for a different traditional Kerala drum, the chenda. This meant a potential disruption to the household’s standing in the timila-led panchavadyam ensemble, which doesn’t feature the chenda. The maestro took it in his stride — and his son, Kalamandalam Harish, went on to become a noted percussionist in his own right.

Marar always followed his own path in a life marked by an early bloom and a quick rise to professional glory, says Harish. Above all, he was resolute — a trait that was in evidence until his death aged 67 this month, the end of a half-century’s career that had wobbled of late due to ill health. Even with acute diabetes hindering the free movement of his bruised fingers, which refused to heal, the doyen anchored a 90-minute panchavadyam in a south Malabar town just five weeks before he succumbed to multiple diseases.

“I was at that concert, playing the edakka,” recalls Harish, 35, referring to the hourglass-shaped drum that finds its place at one end of the two long rows where timila and maddalam artists face each other as the main percussionists of the panchavadyam’s five-instrument ensemble.

What turned out to be Marar’s farewell show, though, was a smaller version of what his guru had once envisaged as a pyramidal symphonic structure. Such a panchavadyam would span no less than 150 minutes.

Rhythmic novelty

This innovative teacher, too, was a Parameswara Marar (1908–89) from the heritage village of Annamanada, 40 km from Thrissur, Kerala’s cultural capital; and the disciple thus acquired the epithet ‘junior’. The senior Marar had gained fame from the 60s onwards with a rhythmic novelty that redefined panchavadyam, developing a meditative slowness after the introductory passages. For a vibrant ensemble with 60-odd performers, this deepening of the base further embellished the kind of panchavadyam its first-wave reformers had conceived in the 1930s. The younger Marar was among the first students to really imbibe and incorporate this development.

The senior Marar taught timila at the prestigious Kerala Kalamandalam where the younger Parameswaran — a nephew of sorts — enrolled in the first batch in 1965, while in his early teens. He completed the four-year course and rejoined the institution in 1971 as a teacher. The stint was brief — the youngster had sensed that performance was his forte.

Excelling in his art, Marar went on to hone his skills alongside young masters of other schools of panchavadyam. In the 1970s, he interacted closely with the illustrious Pallavur trio of eastern Palakkad. His tapping and rolling drills, alongside brothers Pallavur Maniyan and Kunjukuttan under the supervision of their eldest sibling Appu Marar, made Parameswaran’s artistry eclectic. As Harish says, quoting experts, “It was a blend of Maniyan’s musical approach and Kunjukuttan’s mathematical precision.”

Great leader

Marar’s heyday as a performer spanned four decades, during which he was a regular at the famous Thrissur Pooram, anchoring around 150 panchavadyam concerts each season. “You need leadership qualities to head a big ensemble,” says Harish. “You need to keep fellow artists in good humour, pay them well. Achhan used to say, ‘Be generous first, to earn well yourself.’ Come festivals like Onam or Vishu, he would gift colleagues with pudava (clothes) and kaineettam (cash gifts).”

Marar’s troupe would at times feature up-and-coming artists as well. “Even so, he had the capacity to make that panchavadyam sound first-rate,” says Harish, who teaches chenda at RLV College in Tripunithura, Kochi.

Marar’s daughter Kala Sunil is a classical vocalist. “Our grandmother, Parukutty Marasiar, used to sing. Achhan avidly followed Carnatic music,” says Harish. “M.D. Ramanathan fascinated him. From there to Sanjay Subrahmanyan to Abhishek Raghuram of the new age, he wouldn’t miss any concerts.”

Marar’s Kalamandalam stint kindled in him a special interest in Kathakali. “To him, only two faces best express all emotions: Kalamandalam Gopi and Kottakkal Sivaraman.”

Harish’s chenda-playing wife Nandini Varma recounts how Marar used to encourage her percussive pursuits long before she joined the family. “On spotting me at temples amid festival crowds, he’d call me out and give me tips on bettering my tayambaka,” she says. This, when orthodoxy has long slotted chenda as a male domain.

Marar’s swansong at Angadipuram on May 4 turned out to be part of a family pilgrimage. “Achhan took us all to a string of shrines around Angadipuram,” says Harish. They stayed in the family home at Kodakara, 20 km north of Annamanada. “In hindsight, it seems surreal.”

The writer is a keen follower of Kerala’s traditional performing arts.

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Printable version | Feb 29, 2020 10:39:56 AM |

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