The wandering singer of Kerala, who impressed Saint Tyagaraja

Shatkala Govinda Marar, who had perfected the art of singing in six tempos, travelled with his tambura, ganjira and edakka

October 01, 2020 07:38 pm | Updated October 02, 2020 12:14 pm IST

The Sangeetha Aaradhana Mandapam inside the Shatkala Govinda Marar Smaraka Kala Samithy

The Sangeetha Aaradhana Mandapam inside the Shatkala Govinda Marar Smaraka Kala Samithy

The compositions of legendary vaggeyakaras were disseminated mainly through their disciples. This was true of the Music Trinity as well as of Swati Tirunal, whose court entertained musicians of all genres. But this is not true of their contemporary, Shatkala Govinda Marar. He was an ascetic and an itinerant musician, who lived a life singing about the glories of god, and he did not have a retinue of disciples following him.

The two-storey building adjacent to the Sree Perumthrikkovil temple in Ramamangalam, Ernakulam district, is a fitting memorial to the saint-musician. The recently renovated mansion, which belongs to Shatkala Govinda Marar Smaraka Kala Samithy, will complete four decades on October 8.

Born in 1798 at Ramamangalam in a traditional Marar family, it was Govinda Marar’s duty to perform kottippadiseva, singing and beating on the edakka drum at the sopanam , the steps leading to the sanctum of the temple in Ramamangalam. Not only is the Ramamangalam bani of Sopana Sangeetham unique, the percussion ensemble, Parishavadyam, and the rare instrument, Kudukka Vina, also have their origin here.

Over the years, it became Marar’s passion to sing in all temples. He visited all the temples in the state of Travancore, armed with his seven-stringed tambura, a ganjira and an edakka.

The Shatkala Govinda Marar Smaraka Samithy at Ramamangalam

The Shatkala Govinda Marar Smaraka Samithy at Ramamangalam


Meeting Swati Tirunal

His travels took him to Swati Tirunal, a great patron of music. The king was fascinated by Marar’s devotion and singing style. Swati Tirunal was well-versed in Sopana Sangeetham , since his family had many famous Kathakali playwrights (the libretto in Kathakali is rendered in Sopana ragas). Also, scholars have pointed out that all Manipravala compositions of Swati Tirunal are in the Sopana style.

The king asked Marar to sing the Sopana raga Puraneeru. Marar rendered a kirtana, strumming the tambura strings with his right hand and beating the ganjira, held by his toes, with his left hand. Impressed by his flawless singing and dexterity, the king presented Marar with a pennant, which he tied to his tambura. It stayed there till his death.

Marar then reached Tyagaraja’s abode as an emissary of King Swati Tirunal, apparently to invite him to the palace, but the composer of ‘Nidhichala sukhama’ gently refused. Marar, however, was allowed to sing before the composer and his disciples — a rare privilege.

He sprang a surprise by singing the eighth Ashtapadi, ‘Chandanacharchitha Neela Kale Bharam’, in Pantuvarali raga in six tempos — hitherto unheard of in the history of music. This fetched him the sobriquet ‘Shatkala.’ Impressed by his prowess, Tyagaraja asked his disciples to sing his composition ‘Entharo mahanubhavulu’ in Sri ragam for Marar.

Then, Marar continued his musical journey, till he breathed his last at Pandharpur in 1843.

There were many attempts to salvage Marar’s compositions, but Trikampuram Krishnankutty Marar’s efforts alone bore fruit, that too towards the end his life. A descendant from the matrilineal side of Govinda Marar’s family, Krishnankutty Marar was an authority on the temple arts of Kerala. It was only a little before his death in 2013 that he could collect the five compositions of Govinda Marar, traditionally known as ‘Shatkala Govinda Pancharatnam,’ the authenticity of which was confirmed by scholars like Kavalam Narayana Panicker.

As part of its initiatives to popularise these compositions, Kala Samithy presented them in Mohiniyattom, choreographed by Jayaprabha Menon from the Kavalam School of dance.

Composed in Sopana ragas, all but one is set to Chembada. The first one ‘Ksheerasagara vasa,’ in Kedaragowla, is an invocation to Narasimha, the presiding deity of Ramamangalam temple. The second one is a Devi stuti, ‘Balachandra vibhushini’, in Arabhi. Surprisingly, the goddess mentioned in the composition is the one at Kanyakubja in Uttar Pradesh. The third and fourth are in praise of Siva — ‘Palayamam parvatheesa’ in Anandabhairavi and ‘Thungapingajadha’ in Bhupalam. The latter depicts Siva in his tandava mood and has been set to tripuda tala, perhaps to highlight the tandava aspect.

The fifth song is ‘Sree Kurumbepaahi’ in Mohanam on the deity at Kuzhuppallikkavu temple near Ramamangalam. The day is not far when Shatkala Govinda Marar’s Pancharatnam will also be heard on the concert stage.

The writer and culture critic is a trained musician.

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