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Chenda artiste Kalamandalam Unnikrishnan on the changing phases of the chenda in Kathakali

Kalamandalam Unnikrishnan   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

A daily-wage labourer in Kolathur in Malappuram sends his two sons to two different art schools and years later the brothers grow up to become top Kathakali percussionists. And while it may sound like a fairy tale, it is the true story of Kathakali’s top chenda player Kalamandalam Unnikrishnan and his brother Kottakkal Ravi, a prominent maddalam player.

Their father was a part-time ritualistic chenda player at a temple. His friend taught the young Unnikrishnan and Ravi the basics of playing the chenda. “I was enrolled in Kalamandalam for the simple reason that at the end of the day there wasn’t enough food to put on the table. I was the eldest of six children. Ravi went to Kottakkal two years later. And although we enjoyed drumming, the push factor was poverty,” says Unnikrishnan.

What strikes you at first as you talk to the 61-year-old Unnikrishnan, who retired as principal of Kerala Kalamandalam Deemed University in 2015, is his holistic approach towards Kathakali. He thinks and lives Kathakali, and about how his chenda can help an actor lift his act and how he can enhance the viewer’s experience.

Excerpts from an interview with Unnikrishnan.

You were in the forefront of Kathakali melam for the last few decades when a new percussion system for pacha (heroic) characters emerged. Could you elaborate on this?

In every area of Kathakali, certain systems have evolved over time outside the kalari system. A set of conventions and applications born out of practice become a system over time. This has happened in the case of percussion for pacha characters too. When we talk about the late Ramankutty Nair Ashaan’s Ravana, we immediately think of Krishnankutty Poduval Ashaan’s chenda. But no one remembers who played the chenda for Kunju Nair Ashaan’s Nala. The reason is that there was no set system those days for playing the chenda for a pacha character.

When you look at the evolution of Kathakali melam we realise that even when there was a system in the kalari, not much attention was given towards the control of tempo when it came to a pacha character. There were set pieces to play, and the chenda followed the artists’ footwork. Concepts such as kal kottu, kai kottu or kannu kottu (drumming for the feet, hands or eyes) evolved or were codified much later. Many of these elements were already in use, but were not properly structured.

You are almost always called upon to play with Kalamandalam Gopi Ashaan. Did he play any role in the evolution of this style?

Gopi Ashaan did provide inputs. He has clear ideas about rhythm, tempo, cadence and mood. He is fastidious about when the tempo should rise or wane and on what should follow next. I am lucky I got lots of opportunities to perform with Gopi Ashaan right after I joined Kalamandalam as a teacher. My guru Achunni Poduval Ashaan, used to encourage me to play for Gopi Ashaan. And this drumming system for pacha characters is something that has evolved from there.

To illustrate this system, let us take the ‘verpadu’ scene where Nala deserts Damayanti in the forest. In the olden days, the percussion switched to irattivattam, a sort of drum roll, after Nala rips off a piece of Damayanti’s robe to cover himself. The chenda didn’t follow the mudras for the rest of Nala’s attam — such as praying to the gods and exhorting the sages to protect his wife — or when he runs away from her. What was being played was merely a repeat of the irattivattam. Today, it is the chenda that gives the cue to the artiste with a kalasam in the dramatic scene where Nala looks alternately at his sleeping wife’s form and the forest. The result has a far bigger impact in conveying to the viewer the conflicting emotions and confusion that are tearing Nala apart. Then there are many instances where the artiste gives a signal, a hint to the percussionists on what is to follow. This is just one example of the language of pacha, an unwritten system that has evolved outside the kalari syllabus.

Is this new system of percussion part of the Kalamandalam syllabus now?

Lately in post-graduate courses in Kalamandalam, especially in theory classes, these principles are discussed and ingrained in the students. We also go through the percussive peculiarities of the important descriptive segments in various stories.

New concepts such as the kind of drumming to be used for gestures or when using the eyes to describe something is also discussed. Take, for instance, the drumming that follows the movement of the eyes. Nala watching Hamsam leave, Bheema looking at the Gandhamadana mountain and Ravana viewing Mount Kailas, are all “looks”. But the drumming patterns vary because the effect that needs to be created on stage is vastly different — one holds a ray of hope for Nala, the second must project Bheema’s overconfidence at conquering that mountain, and the last is Ravana marvelling at the immensity of Kailas. There are several such examples. I believe these aspects must be built into the chenda syllabus. The teaching process must be standardised just as there is a codified system of mudras for actors.

What else is being developed now?

Drumming to display conflicts or sangharsha kottu. Elakiyattam, which is the actor’s narration without vocals, can be divided into several categories: scenes of internal conflict such as Nala deserting Damayanti or Karna’s turmoil on seeing Kunti; anger of Roudrabheema as he confronts Dussasana; self-confidence or even arrogance such as of Ravana lifting Kailasa; and the aesthetics of describing a beautiful garden, for example. There are different approaches to the drumming of these emotions though the mudras may be common. For example, the mudra for Krishna when depicted by Duryodhana and by Arjuna is the same but the former displays hostility and the latter devotion. The chenda helps amplify this contrast. I am sure that a system of emotion-based drumming will evolve over time.

What is your take on the trend of using microphones to hone the acoustics for the chenda and the maddalam?

I believe Kathakali deserves good acoustics. We must change with the times. I remember the days when the singers did not have a microphone and then a time when two singers shared a microphone. Today’s Kathakali vocalists use sophisticated sound systems. Percussion too needs similar amplification, especially since the way these drums are played have changed over time. The possibilities of the chenda and its four basic sound positions are tapped to the maximum only in Kathakali.

An example will drive home my point. There are many slow-tempo sringara padams in Kathakali. Each one is different from the other. ‘Kuvalayavilochane’ in Nalacharitam - Day 2, depicting the newly-wed Nala and Damayanti stands out from the rest in its softness. The terms and imagery such as flowers, saplings...are all delicate. So the technique we drummers use is also delicate. To carry that rhythm to the actor, first to inspire him, and then to the audience, we need a good sound system. It’s time the chenda got a sound check.

How about the practice of using three and sometimes even four sets of chenda and maddalam?

That may be a bit overdone in some cases, but is justified in others. Take the majestic kathi character of Narakasuran. His Keki scene with his wife, going to heaven, confronting Indra, etc all need only one chenda. You can use a second chenda to keep the basic rhythm. It’s the same in Ravanolbhavam till the thapassattam. But if you consider the violent scenes of Roudrabheema or Veerabhadra and Bhadrakali, or the appearance of Narasimha, a third set of drums will certainly add to both the visual and aural impact. The audience will go back thrilled. Isn’t that the very essence of performing arts?

What do you say about the state of Kathakali today?

We have a rich talent pool, in every department. In chenda many of them are my students. The opportunities are plenty now. And, unlike before, they are getting the chance to perform with senior artistes early in their career. But they must be aware of their responsibilities too. Before every performance they must revise in their minds the kalari lessons of the part they are going to perform. What we must remember is that our work is continously being archived by people through videos. If we skip a kalasam or display a lack of rigour, our disciples will think it’s okay to do that. That may lead to erosion in standards. Actors must also take more care to communicate with the percussionists and the vocalists. They should give pointers when their attam is about to end or when the tempo should pick up. There should never be a lack of clarity between the actor and other artistes on stage.


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Printable version | Jul 31, 2021 12:35:34 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/music/in-conversation-with-kathakalis-top-chenda-player-kalamandalam-unnikrishnan/article30987892.ece

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