Melody on the maddalam

Kalanilayam Babu

Kalanilayam Babu   | Photo Credit: S. GOPAKUMAR

Kalanilayam Babu’s strokes sustain the harmony between chenda and maddalam, and the visual semantics of Kathakali

The history of percussion music in Kathakali is noted for two major genres that was developed in the last century by a group of virtuosos. One is ‘melam-dictated’ and the other is ‘melody-dictated’. In the field of maddalam, Manjery Sankunni Nair and Chalakudy Narayanan Nambeesan almost always laid emphasis on melody. While Nambeesan was a brilliant maddalam player in Panchavadyam too, for Kathakali recitals, he used to be more inclined towards ‘fingering’ rather than ‘beats’. Among the disciples of Nambeesan, one who faithfully followed the style of performance carved out by his Guru is none other than Kalanilayam Babu.

As the son of renowned maddalam player, Vennimala Rama Warrier, Babu, in his childhood, was naturally drawn to the subdued yet alluring swaras emanating from the maddalam traditionally categorised as a ‘devavadya’. His growing interest in the percussion instrument motivated him to join Unnai Warrier Smaraka Kalanilayam, Irinjalakuda, for systematic training in Kathakali maddalam. Under Chalakudy Narayanan Nambeesan and Pazhoor Krishnankutty Marar, Babu imbibed the primary and advanced lessons uninterruptedly for five years. On successfully completing the training, he served at the Kalabharati Kathakali School for a short stint and later joined Margi Kathakali School in Thiruvananthapuram as instructor of maddalam.

Myriad opportunities

Babu got myriad opportunities to be part of top-ranking Kathakali performances in South Kerala ever since he joined Margi. He accompanied almost all the eminent Kathakali actors on stage such as Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, Madavoor Vasudevan Nair, Kottakkal Sivaraman and the like. The natas (phrases) he played on the maddalam in Thishram (six beats), Khandam (10 beats) and Mishram (seven beats) were mellifluous and befitting the emotional contexts of each play. Babu’s finger touches on the maddalam have augmented the impact of the Sthai and Sanchari bhavas of lead female characters such as Damayanthi, Mohini, Lalithas in various plays and Panchali.

“Babu’s forte has invariably been linked to melody on the maddalam. His imagination blooms with the varying kalasams of the many different Kathakali characters,” comments ace chenda player Kalamandalam Unnikrishnan, who has shared many a stage with the veteran maddalam player. Babu always helps sustain the harmony between the chenda and the maddalam keeping in mind the visual semantics of Kathakali. His playing is more often simple and direct and he seldom revels in complex phrases. Unlike his Guru, Chalakudy Nambeesan, Babu was not a regular presence in the Panchavadyam recitals of central Kerala. Had he been active in Panchavadyam too, he could have convinced the rasikas of his proficiency in the five sthanams of the addalam; chappu, pothu, ‘na’ karam, ‘dhi’ karam and ‘dhimi’ karam.

Winning accolades

As one who could win wide-ranging appreciation from the learned audience for his prudence in playing the maddalam for the many different characters in Kathakali and for the melappadam, Babu has, for decades, been an integral part of the Kathakali recitals held in south Kerala. Several honours including Kalashri from the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Academy and the Kerala Kalamandalam award came his way.

The septuagenarian artiste, whose Sapthathi is being celebrated in the last week of October, has a few exceptional disciples who are competent to carry on his legacy.

Babu is currently not as dynamic on stage as he was before. Yet the grandeur of the Kathakali performances he had been part of for over 40 years returns to him as nostalgia, time and again

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Printable version | Feb 23, 2020 2:07:26 PM |

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