History & Culture

Thichoor Mohanan: ‘I experiment, but I don’t compromise on the techniques’

Thichoor Mohanan is a veteran edakka artiste whose earliest memories of the instrument are inseparable from the temple that shares its fence with his house. In the sanctum of the quiet Ayyappankavu temple, the three-year-old Mohanan would play random strokes on the drum that hung on the wall. .

This daybreak activity was no leisure. He had to repeat the task later in the forenoon and at dusk. The child was actually working when he held the stick and beat one side of the instrument. Mohanan, in fact, was performing a temple duty that his family has been associated with for generations.

Played only by men

Convention permits only men to play the hourglass-shaped edakka during the routine puja. And Mohanan turned out to be the only member from his family eligible to play it. .

“Obviously, when I was young I didn’t understand the significance of the art,” says the 62-year-old artiste. “I would beat the edakka half-asleep. Sometimes I would doze off midway and wake up only when the priest finished the closed-door rites and sprinkled the teertham.”

Thichoor Mohanan

Thichoor Mohanan  

Mohanan went on to perform for more than two decades at temple festivals in central Kerala’s Thalapilly taluk. And was hailed for his edakka playing at the traditional panchavadyam ensembles that went on for more than two hours. The state government recognised his eminence with the Sangeetha Nataka Akademi award in 2019.

Important tour

Mohanan recalls his trips outside Kerala, as a teenager, which strengthened his percussive skills. A famed troupe included him in its tour of Madras, Bombay and Calcutta in December 1975.

Anchoring the panchavadyam were the illustrious Pallavur Maniyan and his brother Kunjukutta Marar. While they would stand in the middle of the row of timila drummers, Mohanan would be at one end with the edakka slung from his left shoulder. The concerts would move slowly along the temple streets, presenting popular crescendos at the crossroads. “I was 17 then. The rigours gave me back-to-back practical lessons,” he says.

Thichoor Mohanan at far end of the Panchavadyam ensemble playing the edakka

Thichoor Mohanan at far end of the Panchavadyam ensemble playing the edakka  

A full-fledged panchavadyam features 60 artistes playing five kinds of instruments. The edakka is the sole drum. While one hand holds the slender stick which has an outward curve towards the tip, the left palm is used to push and lift the hollow wooden trunk up and down the rounded membranes on both sides. “This enables the edakka to change its pitch,” says timila master Kariyannur Narayanan Namboodiri. “The gamaka-laden resonance so generated adds to the harmonic value of a panchavadyam.”

Mohanan’s edakka gains special attention in the passage just after the detailed first chapter of the panchavadyam, notes aesthete B.K. Harinarayanan, a poet-lyricist. The edakka is played after a break in the confluent music by the timila and maddalam drums besides the ilathalam (cymbals) and the kombu (horn). “Few can match Mohanan’s brilliance in retaining the tempo from that junction. The way he single-handedly takes the cue is magical,” Harinarayanan says.

Self-learned lessons

If Mohanan has been a busy artiste for four decades, it has largely been due to his capacity to observe the techniques of his seniors and absorb their sense of beauty. While his unclewas his first guru, Varavoor Kuttan Nair formally taught Mohanan since the age of nine. Vellithiruthi Krishnankutty Nair and Pookattiri Divakara Poduval further trained him in the chenda. They equipped the youngster to perform keli and tayambaka concerts.

“That apart, I have several mentors who have guided me at several phases,” says Mohanan.

“They made me eclectic. I experiment, but I don’t compromise on the techniques that I believe are core to the art.”

That said, certain new-age trends bother Mohanan. One such is the general slide in discipline. He says. “Friction over seniority is on the rise. That existed in the old times too, but the yesteryear masters maintained respect for the opposition.”

Keen professional rivalry, says Mohanan, is fine. “The alacrity, though, should not be to outshine others. Panchavadyam is teamwork.”

The writer is a keen follower

of Kerala’s performing arts.

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Printable version | Apr 19, 2021 3:36:26 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/in-a-league-of-his-own/article33750099.ece

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