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Kudukka Vina — Back from the brink

Rajendar Marar’s efforts have given a new lease of life to the single-stringed Kudukka Vina

April 29, 2021 09:15 pm | Updated 09:15 pm IST

Ramamangalam in Ernakulam district is the hub of Sopana Sangeetham and the esoteric art of Kerala percussion. This can possibly be because the village is inhabited mostly by members of the Marar community, for whom Sopana Sangeetham and percussion are traditional vocations. The much sought-after ensemble of Panchavadyam is believed to have originated here, and the precursor of Panchavadyam, Parishavadyam, is also presented only by artistes from Ramamangalam even today.

The village is especially known for a primordial musical instrument called Kudukka Vina, a single-string instrument made of coconut shells and played with a thin stick. At the lower end is a full shell, called the ‘Kudukka’, while the other end has a half shell covered with leather, called ‘Kitaram,’ which is placed on the shoulder and serves as a resonator. A single metallic string is held taut between these ends. The tension of the string is varied, thereby producing different swaras, even as the string is vibrated by striking it with an ‘eerkkil’ (rib of the coconut palm leaf). Regular practice enables a novice to produce swaras of much purity.

Rajendra Marar’s revival project

The credit for reconstructing the extinct Kudukka Vina goes to Ooramana Rajendra Marar, an authority on both sopana sangeetham and percussion art. According to him, Kudukka Vina was common in the Marar homes of Ramamangalam centuries ago, but it gradually disappeared with the emergence of new musical instruments and also because the instrument was difficult to master.

Ooramana Rajendra Marar

Ooramana Rajendra Marar

As a child, Rajendra Marar had heard about the instrument from his father. But it was his uncle Olikkal Prabhakara Kurup, who provided him with more details, as he remembered an old Marar playing the Kudukka Vina. Rajendra Marar’s attempts to create one based on the descriptions from his uncle were not a success. Later, his guru Vadakkedathu Appu Marar threw more light on the instrument and this time Rajendar Marar’s attempts worked. The piece he constructed to his guru’s specifications produced pure nada.

Rajendra Marar shared his success with his other teacher, Guru Trikampuram Krishnankutty Marar, who was equally interested in reviving the instrument. Rajendra Marar presented his Vina to him.

First Kudukka Vina concert

Guru Trikampuram Krishnankutty Marar

Guru Trikampuram Krishnankutty Marar

In1986, Krishnankutty Marar, an artiste endowed with exceptional dexterity in music and rhythms, presented a Kudukka Vina concert at the Perumthrikkovil Temple festival in Ramamangalam. Accompanied by violin and mridangam, the concert was a path-breaking one in the history of music, and Krishnankutty Marar became the ambassador of Kudukka Vina, invited to present concerts at many places. Rajendra Marar had his first concert later, at Alpara Temple in Perumbavoor.

In 2015, with a view to popularise the rare instrument, a three-day workshop on the craft of constructing and playing the instrument was conducted by Rajendra Marar at Shatkala Govinda Marar Smaraka Kala Samithy. This helped to make Kudukka Vina more familiar among music buffs, and now there are quite a few artistes capable of presenting concerts. Since the notes from the Kudukka Vina are feeble in intensity and difficult to sustain, many artistes have started affixing an electronic pick-up to the instrument.

Simulators for practising percussion instruments are common — Pulimutti for Chenda, Sravanappalaka for Maddalam and Kayetha for Edakka. And the Kudukka Vina is an additional simulator for the Edakka, for producing swaras. It demands regular practice for the swaras to be pure. Perhaps Kudukka Vina is the only stringed instrument in which the string tension is varied to produce swaras, while in all other cases, it is the length of the vibrating string that is varied. One cannot expect the Kudukka Vina to gain the popularity of a violin, but the vintage instrument is a unique tribute to the power of simple music.

The writer and culture critic is a trained musician.

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