In the path of tradition

Chenda melam

Chenda melam   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

Instrumental music of Kerala, especially percussion, has a highly advanced tala system that is found exclusively in the music of the state

The culture of Kerala is a beautiful amalgamation of both Aryan and Dravidian cultures. Local inhabitants embraced even those that came from outside India and made it their own.

All these lead to a rich diversity in the development of its arts — traditional, ritualistic and folk, with music and rhythmic set-up that differs from the present-day classical raga and tala system (paddhati).

The music of Kerala with regards to its ragas, talas, songs and musical instruments (vadyas), find distinctive expressions that are highly advanced, imaginative, typical and sublime.

The unique feature found in the songs, no matter where those songs are rendered, is their being set to metres — chandobaddham, with two important kriyas, the sasabda kriya (sound) and the nissabda kriya (silent), the two important modes of executing rhythm in the ancient tala paddhati. Needless to state that these talas were in vogue much prior to the present Sooladi sapta talas, where the beat and finger counts determine the different talas.

The term ‘tala’ is derived from the word ‘Tal’ meaning ‘base’. In other words it is the rhythm that provides stability to all forms of gita (music), vadya (instrument) and nritta (dance). Indian music has innumerable time measures found in different genres of musical forms, without a parallel in the music of any other country in the world.

Temple tradition

The divine origin of talas, mentioned in several ancient texts continues as a living tradition in the temple music of Kerala, the Sopana sangeetham. The glorification of deities, ragas and talas can be observed in tyaanis or the dhyaana slokas rendered through kottipadi seva, a temple service offered by a Marar, the temple drummer who sings, keeping the tala on the edakka. Specific talas such as Panchaari, Muri-adanta, Adanta, Chempata, Triputa and Ekam are adopted for rendering of these tyaanis. Likewise the temple percussion or the kshetra tala vadyas too are given divine origin and the sound of their beats to sacred words. The two sounds ‘TA – TOM’ produced on the timila, reflect the two sacred words ‘TAT TVAM’ (Tat Tvam Asi, Chandogya Upanishad).

With the development of raga, as seen in the present-day Indian classical music, tala became a subordinate to the raga. But, in Kerala, the drumming became more predominant and tala got freed from this subjugation.

Thus, thayambaka shaped the tala-vadya-laya-vinyasa and Pancharimelam, Pandimelam, Panchavadyam and so on shaped the tala vrinda vadya. Even the raga alapana is tala-bound, progressing towards a climax through different speeds of singing and rhythm. The alapana starts from the patikaala — the lowest speed, gradually increasing in speed to shatkaala — its highest speed, without making the listener aware of the changes in speed.

So also the soft sounding of the tala while rendering raga alapana is an important feature of Sopana sangeetham, especially found in Kathakali where the two singers, ponnani (main) and sinkidi (supporting), render the raga alapana to beats on the talas (Kuzitalam and Chengala).

Rhythmic set up

The thullal pattukal or songs of Kunchan Nambiar, the legendary figure of the 18th century, is a special branch of poetic literature that combines musical verses and songs set to ragas and talas, meant for singing, acting and dancing to the accompaniment of instruments such as the talam (cymbals), maddalam and tutti (a wind instrument).

It is from the verses given in this poetry with words set to the different chhandas that one gets clarity to the typical delineation of Kerala talas such as Kumbha, Marma, Laxmi and so on. The words clearly define the metric set-up of each tala. This rhythmic set up is found in many traditional and folk art forms of Kerala.

A distinct characteristic feature of Kerala music is the duration of time, which remains the same for both the sounded and the ‘unsounded’ action.

The ancient talas like the Ashtotara talas (108 talas), which were in vogue much earlier to the Sooladi talas, included in its tala prasthaara the shadangas, the six angas or sections of a tala, which were anudrutam, drutam, laghu, guru, plutam and kakapadam. While the sooladi talas adopted only the first three, Sopana sangeetam retained all the six. Another similarity found in Sopana tala paddhati and the ancient talas is the value of laghu, which remains constant with four counts, the chatusra jaati laghu. This again differs from the scheme of sooladi talas with laghu having five jaatis, the tisra, chatusra, khanda , misra and sankeerna.

Some of the commonly used Sopana talas adopted in the traditional and classical forms are Chempata (eight beats), Triputa (seven beats) , Panchari (six beats), Champa (10 beats), Adanta (14 beats), Kundanachi ( 12 beats) and Eka tala (a beat and three counts).

The music of Kerala continues to follow the age-old tradition of Marga sangeetham, wherein the tala is well defined and clearly stated through its varied expressions in the vadya paddhati.

The instrumental music of Kerala gaining more prominence than vocal music since very early times, has led to a highly advanced tala system, adopted in both visual and aural arts, which is found exclusively in the music of Kerala.

(The author is a renowned Mohiniyattam exponent and Professor of Carnatic music, Faculty of Music and Fine Arts, University of Delhi. The article contains excepts from her book, Vanishing Temple Arts)

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Printable version | Feb 20, 2020 7:58:47 AM |

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