When the drums speak

From Kerala: Over three days, Sreeraj will lead performances by improvising rhythm patterns to the beats provided by supporting percussionists

From Kerala: Over three days, Sreeraj will lead performances by improvising rhythm patterns to the beats provided by supporting percussionists  

The 10th edition of Keli’s Classical Rhythm series will unveil the evolution of indigenous percussion with its star performer, Mattannur Sreeraj

Showcasing the talent of prodigy turned seasoned maestro Mattannur Sreeraj, the Keli Classical Rhythm Festival 2020 brings to Mumbai a reverberant display of indigenous percussion in the vaunted Thayambaka tradition. Sreeraj’s honorific refers to Mattannur, the municipality in Kerala’s Kannur district that is known for its rich roster of performers classically trained in chenda, the ethnic drum that lies at the very heart of a Thayambaka recital. Over three days, Sreeraj will lead performances by improvising rhythm patterns to the beats provided by supporting percussionists. In the process he will gradually unveil the evolution of the art form itself.

Pillars of percussion

The son of the nationally reknowned Thayambaka doyen, Mattannur Sankarankutty, the 37-year-old Sreeraj has come into his own rather spectacularly in the past decade and a half. According to Ramachandran Keli, the prime mover behind the Keli cultural festivals he’s tirelessly been organising in Mumbai since 1992, it rivals the manner in which tabla exponent Zakir Hussain took the torch forward from his illustrious father, Alla Rakha. “Sreeraj is the genius of the century. Nobody can replicate or challenge his rhythms and the spontaneity and ease of his improvisations,” gushes Ramachandran. Sreeraj stands on the shoulders of other giants as well.

This edition, the tenth in the Keli’s Classical Rhythm series since 1999, is dedicated to the memory of yet another Thayambaka legend, Thrithala Kesava Poduval, who passed away in 1989, at a young age. According to the Malayalam writer Manoj Kuroor, who wrote a poem on Poduval, “He [subverted] the rigid conventional structure of Thayambaka and revelled in wild flights of imagination while performing on stage.” These are attributes more than shared by Sreeraj, a performer in the mould of Poduval, given to electrifying theatrics (‘throwing his stick into the air mid-performance’) and innovative beat cycles.

“In the arts of percussion unique to Kerala only the drums speak. There is no barrier of language or community. The beats, that lie within all of us, are arranged into patterns in all manner of permutations and combinations,” says Ramachandran. In the very first Classical Rhythm Festival, held in 1999 at the Horniman Circle Gardens in Fort, three traditional forms of percussion were presented, namely Thayambaka, Melappadam and Panchavadyam. Noted critic and writer Shanta Gokhale wrote, “Over five dozen players played as one, creating constantly changing sound patterns that rose up to greet the gods themselves. For me, the performance was like a rolling ocean of rhythmic sound, but for many it was clearly a reverberating call from home.”

Widening the canvas

Although the Keli festivals have been regularly courting audiences beyond the large Malayali diaspora in Mumbai, forms like Thayambaka remain lesser known despite being immensely gratifying to audiences who’ve experienced recitals first-hand. One of the reasons they haven’t crossed over into the national space, apart from sheer regional insularity, is because they’ve only recently (very gradually, from the 1970s onwards) emerged out of the temple premises in which they’ve thrived for centuries, albeit not necessarily as part of rituals.

Sreeraj’s first outing to Mumbai was during the 2007 festival where he was felicitated with the Promising Artiste of the Year Award. He and his brother, Mattannur Srikanth presented the Malamakkavu style of Thayambaka on the second day, following their father’s majestic opening-day act. His father’s performance — a seven-beat cycle called Adantha Kooru — will be emulated by Sreeraj on the first day of this year’s festival. Even if each day’s itinerary takes place at different venues across the city, from Nariman Point to Anushakthi Nagar to Nerul, the performances are thematically linked and should be savoured in succession.

Keli Classical Rhythm Festival 2020: February 28 at Y.B Chavan Centre, 6. 45 p.m.; February 29 at Anushakthi Nagar, 6.30 p.m.; March 1 at 7 p.m. at Terna auditorium, Nerul. Free entry on all days. Passes are available at venues.

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Printable version | Apr 10, 2020 7:19:46 PM |

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