Drums that speak of tradition

B. Sumathi Mathiazhagan plays the ‘panchamukha vadyam’ at  Thyagarajaswamy Temple in Tiruvar.

B. Sumathi Mathiazhagan plays the ‘panchamukha vadyam’ at Thyagarajaswamy Temple in Tiruvar. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

B. Sumathi Mathiazhagan, a government school headmistress, is keeping alive a family tradition of sacred music that has been practised for generations in the temple town of Tiruvarur.

Ms. Mathiazhagan, 52, has followed her father Selvaraj in the art of playing the ancient percussion instruments ‘panchamukha vadyam’ and the ‘suddha maddalam’, at the Thyagarajaswamy Temple in Tiruvarur. She is the first woman to have taken over a traditionally male role in this field.

“We belong to the ‘Parasaiva’ community that has been playing these instruments at the temple. My ancestor Thambiyappan Muttukarar was one of the disciples of composer Muthuswami Dikshitar. My father did not have a male heir or younger brothers, so after his demise in 2017, I decided to take it up in order to stop the tradition from fading away,” Ms. Mathiazhagan told The Hindu.

Ms. Mathiazhagan has been playing the instruments at the shrine, especially when the ‘saya ratchai’ pooja and ‘Ajaba purappadu’ rituals are performed, since 2018.

Her daughter, M. Sushmashankari, an engineering graduate, steps in when she is unable to attend, as she too has been trained in the art.

“Initially some people objected to my playing, because I am a woman, but I went ahead anyway. I am grateful to the temple authorities for their support and encouragement,” said Ms. Mathiazhagan.

“We don’t have any teachers for playing the drums, other than our parents and family members. In this art, the knowledge of the sollukattu (rhythmic words) is imparted in secrecy. The information is available only on palm leaf manuscripts,” she added.

The shell-shaped bronze base of the ‘panchamukha vadyam’ is topped with five hollow cylinders whose openings are covered with deer hide. “The five drums are named after the five faces of Lord Siva — the central one is Sadyojata, and the four peripheral ones are Isanam, Tatpurusham, Aghoram and Vamadevam. It is mounted on a wheeled platform for mobility,” said Ms. Mathiazhagan.

Thought to be a modified version of the Chola-era ‘kudamuzha’ drum, the ‘panchamukha vadyam’ is hard to maintain. “We are taught how to take care of the instrument from a young age. During the rainy season, the drum leather can soften and lose its playability. If we hit it too hard, the hide can tear,” she said.

The headmistress said that she often speaks to her students about appreciating local history and tradition. “I am very fortunate to be doing my bit towards preserving this musical heritage,” said Ms. Mathiazhagan.

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Printable version | Jun 30, 2022 9:22:44 pm | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Tiruchirapalli/tiruvarur/article65467011.ece