Though Singaari Melam is a percussion ensemble that is now part of Kerala’s folk performance tradition, it was not always so. “Singaari Melam evolved from the people who migrated from Karnataka and Goa settled in the Ernakulam region of Kerala,” narrates actor and theatre personality, Sajitha Madathil, who is currently working on a book on the intervention of women in the performance traditions of Singaari Melam, Kathakalia and Mudiyattam in Kerala.
“The State government started a project for self help groups through neighbourhood committees that then took part in activities such as making pickles to earn and save money. These women usually meet in large groups where they conduct music and dance sessions. Some of them heard about Singaari Melam and started learning. Soon they began to perform, and their performances were a huge hit. In the beginning, they faced criticism from men on grounds of sanctity, they were told not to touch the sacred drum during their menstrual cycles and then they were ridiculed for playing drums that were bigger than them. But the form continued to remain popular.”
Overall, since 2000, about 45 groups were formed, each with over 15 women and these women would be paid as much as Rs. 10,000 per performance. “In the peak season, they could be doing over 20 performances a month. So it becomes a business apart from being a form of creative expression.”
According to Sajitha, who is also the Deputy Secretary (under Folk and Tribal arts) with the Sangeet Natak Akademi, this is the first time that anybody is studying the history of Singaari Melam. Sajitha has done similar studies on Kathakali and Mudiyattam as part of the same project, both times focusing on the history of women’s intervention and the contemporary context of their intervention.
For instance, she says, it was Chavara Parukutty amma who broke through the caste (she was a goldsmith’s daughter) and male-dominated performance tradition of Kathakali and began to play women’s characters. Then it was Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair with his women’s Kathakali troupe, Vanitha Kathakali Sangam, who really brought women into mainstream Kathakali performance in 1975. This was soon after the Kerala government announced Kathakali competition open for school, for the first time, for both boys and girls.”
“These girls from the dance troupe began to play both male and female characters. They had the freedom to experiment with different characters, which was unusual because once a dancer is assigned a character, it remains with her for a long time.”
Sajitha finds a connection between the way women established themselves in the traditions of Singaari Melam, Kathakali and Mudiyattam. “All of them are from totally different backgrounds but you can see the connection because of the contemporary women who have been trying to intervene in these forms since 1975. This intervention comes from a sense of empowerment that makes them want to perform. It also happened because of an indirect political, feminist consciousness.”
This is relevant, Sajitha explains, because most research work on women empowerment in Kerala is connected with the social history of women. “As a theatre person I see that there is no written history for women and their performance tradition. There are a lot of women actors in theatre, but people say that these women work for money. People don’t consider their creative input and their role in popularizing theatre. I’m an actress, I don’t want to be known as someone who is into theatre just for the money. This is an effort to create my history,” says Sajitha, who has written a book on Woman's History of Malayalam Theatre.