Tracing aural and visual links

Paolo Pacciolla   | Photo Credit: K K Gopalakrishnan

Hailing from a small sunny town in South Italy, Paolo Pacciolla’s first love has always been music. “I started learning the pianoforte at the age of six. I was enrolled at the Conservatory of Music and got a Diploma of Pianoforte. My father loved music and used to listen to Jazz. In fact, my interest in rhythm came through Jazz and Blues. And it was the Blues that introduced me to the world of African music and the music of other cultures, including Near Eastern, Persian, Indonesian, and Indian music. I was mostly attracted to drums and, being a pianist, I was fascinated by hand drums with extensive use of fingers, such as the Persian goblet drum tombak and the tabla,” recalls Pacciolla. He has a doctorate in ethnomusicology for his thesis ‘Drumming auspiciousness; the pakhavaj of Nathdwara and the cult of the King-God’.

Currently based in Thrissur, he is researching on a project on ‘Enlivening rhythms; drums and drumming in ritual performances of contemporary Kerala’, under a two-year Tagore Fellowship of the Ministry of Culture, Delhi. The project is so titled because “drums are played in front of icons of deities to give energy to the dance of oracles, to give sonic expression to the emotions of actors telling stories of gods; as a royal offering (rajopachara), to accompany the daily ritual in temples and so on. Music produces images, tells stories, creates entire universes by means of air, ether, and time, and then dissolves them. The forms that music creates are invisible, but may become manifest with the help of notation and symbolic interpretation. My research aims at understanding the function of drums in rituals through the analysis of musical forms and their notation, in the light of the information provided by musicians, those doing the rituals, and texts,” he states.

Influence of art forms

An interesting aspect that struck him since the beginning of his fieldwork in Kerala is “the high degree of permeability among ritual performances; in other words, the capability of a community to include in its rituals, elements and practices of other groups belonging to both similar and contrasting contexts,” he says. As an example, he points to the ‘Nagakalam’, performed by Pulluvans, which is very similar, in terms of purpose, structure and elements to the ‘Bhagavaty Kaḷamezuthu’ of the Kuruppus, which again has a great deal of similarity with that of ‘Ayyappan Teyyattu’ of the Tiyyati Nambiars. However, all the communities occupied different levels in the social hierarchy of Kerala of yore.

In 2017-18, he was a senior fellow of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) and affiliated with the International Centre for Kerala Studies of the University of Kerala for research on a project: ‘Living images and ritual drumming; A comparative study of drums and drumming in Kalamezhutu and Koodiyattam.’

This research has “provided me with elements to argue that the relationship between drumming and images in ritual performances such as Kalamezhutu and Koodiyattam is deep and multifaceted,” he says. The author and academic has been invited to play with the groups of traditional music of his country, and has collaborated with Iranian and Indian musicians. He taught Ethnomusicology at the Conservatory of Lecce and, for many years, at the Conservatory of Music of Vicenza.

Classification of music

Does he differentiate music, such as ethnic, traditional, folk, classic, modern and contemporary? “Of course I do. The terms classical, modern and contemporary denote different periods of the history of Western art music. Such distinctions do not work for Indian music, whose history and social contexts were different. Traditional and folk music denote local traditions transmitted orally. The word ethnic is a label that has been introduced with globalisation. It is for the public to define the music of the various cultures in the world.”

His passion for Indian music landed him in Bhubaneswar in 1995 and he studied khayal tradition of music and the Mardala (Odissi pakhavaj) before focussing on Dhrupad pakhavaj.

About his passion for Indian music, Paolo says that, initially, he was attracted by its sound. “I found it beautiful and rich in meaning. I have always been interested in Indian music and its relationship with philosophical and religious ideas, and with the other arts: dance, acting, architecture, painting. Indeed, when the heritage of the pakhavaj has become the topic of my doctoral thesis at Durham University, UK, I studied it from multiple perspectives. A revised version of it will be published next year by Routledge.”

And how did Paolo get interested in the percussion of Kerala? “My research on the pakhavaj heritage pointed out the strong relationship between drumming and images in ancient and pre-modern India; pakhavaj’s compositions were shaped as images, produced images and told stories. I have come to Kerala in order to deepen the study of these processes since in Kerala, for geographical and historical reasons, these have been preserved. Furthermore, drums are the very core of such rituals in which numerous arts are strongly interconnected.”

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Printable version | Mar 6, 2021 3:22:15 PM |

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