Cherpulassery Sivan is a celebrated maddalam[i] artiste for ethnic ensembles such as panchavadyam[ii] and keli (a percussive dialogue between the chenda[iii] and maddalam, accompanied by the beats of the cymbals) for Kathakali performances. Sivan comes from a family of legendary maddalam artists from the Cherpulassery village in central Kerala and is a celebrated performer himself.
V. Kaladharan is a well-known art critic and author.
V. Kaladharan: Traditionally, only the Ambalavasi community[iv] is allowed to play musical instruments in temple rituals and ceremonies. Performers from the Nair community play maddalam within the temple precincts. You hail from a Nair family. How long has your family been professionally associated with the Ayyappa temple in Cherpulassery?
Cherpulassery Sivan: It goes back to almost 170 years. My mother’s grandfather was a famed maddalam player. His name was Vaalparambil Kunjhan Nair. Even Tiruvilwamala Venkichan Swami (a legendary maddalam artiste) held my great-grandfather in high esteem, and used to say that no one could match Kunjhan when it comes to playing maddalam in keli.
My grandfather had three sons, all of whom opted to stay out of the family occupation. I was born to his daughter, after he performed a long penance for an heir to the maddalam tradition. It is said that I was born at an auspicious moment at dusk when the Ayyappa temple bells were tolling. My grandfather named me Sivasankaran. He started teaching maddalam to me when I was eight years old. He took me to the Ayyappa temple and handed me the instrument. Six months later, he passed away.
Our family is originally from Chalavara, an interior village, 8 km south of Cherpulassery. We migrated to Cherpulassery because the Ayyappa temple there assured us of a greater amount (96 para) of rice as wage. Today, it translates to some Rs 14,000, our monthly salary.
V.K.: Your grandfather played maddalam for the temple ceremonies. What all did you learn from him?
C.S.: I learned the foundations of keli. Its basic variety is called adiyantira keli, which usually lasts for 10 to 15 minutes but can be stretched to half an hour. I was taught chembadavattam, panchaarikkooru and irikida, the various stages of the percussion performance. My grandfather passed away when I was in the middle of the irikida sessions.
After that, I was taken to Sadanam Kathakali Akademi in Peroor, 30 km southeast of Cherpulassery, by the famed chenda maestros Aliparamba Kesava Poduval and Sivarama Poduval. It was at Sadanam that Paloor Achuthan Nair taught me maddalam. I was only nine years old then.
I should mention that Kesava Poduval and Sivarama Poduval had to put in a lot of effort to persuade my father to let me join Sadanam.
V.K.: Was your father a percussion player?
C.S.: My father Chazhiyattu Appunni Nair was a tavil[v] player.
V.K.: Was the nadaswaram-tavil[vi] combination performance popular in Valluvanad region, where you come from? It is not usually played in southern Kerala or even in eastern Palakkad that borders Tamil Nadu.
C.S.: It was played at the Cherpulassery Ayyappa temple.
My father did not want me to learn tavil, given that it fetched only one-fifth of the income that you got from playing maddalam. In any case, I was not interested in tavil and wanted to learn only maddalam.
V.K.: What did you learn at Sadanam?
C.S.: Paloor asan (guru) taught me keli and Kathakali maddalam for two-and-a-half years. The chenda master at Sadanam was Kalamandalam Chandra Mannadiar.
I learned another style of maddalam under Alanallur Krishnankutty Nambissan. My next and last guru at Sadanam was Eachara Warrier.
I started small. I met the dance guru Karimpuzha Achutha Warrier, who taught me how to play maddalam for parts of Mohiniyattam performances such as tillana, jatiswaram and allarippu. I began playing the maddalam for Kathakali performances and dances.
Simultaneously, I was also playing keli, alongside illustrious performers like Trithala Kesava Poduval on the chenda. Kesava Poduval suggested I learn under another maddalam maestro, Trichur Maniyan Panikkar. I learned under him and was introduced to the Kadavallur School of maddalam. After all, Maniyan Panikkar was a pupil of Sankunni Nair, father of the maddalam legend Kadavallur Aravindakshan. Their style has certain unique characteristics when it comes to ennam[vii] and nila[viii] that we play on the instrument. I learned under Maniyan for three years.
Around that time, two art-patron aristocrats, Pumully Aram Thampuran and Edamanakkal Namboodiri, noticed me playing the maddalam for a keli along with Trithala Kesava. They were impressed enough to recommend that I train under Kolamangalath Narayanan Nair, another renowned master who had learned under Punnathur Madhavan Nair. They sponsored my training for about three years. Maniyan Panikkar had already taught me a few lessons on the slow-tempo regions of panchavadyam. I perfected those lessons under Narayanan Nair.
Overall, I trained in maddalam for 13 years.
Soon, in panchavadyam concerts, I was performing alongside titans like Annamanada Peethambara Marar, Annamanada Achutha Marar, Pallippatt Achutha Marar, Makkoth Sankarankutty Marar and Tiruvanchikulam Nanu Marar on timila[ix], and Narayanan Nair, Maniyan Panikkar and Chalakkudy Narayanan Nambissan on maddalam. Those concerts that lasted a little over two hours benefitted me a lot, they bolstered my performance.
V.K.: So, you stopped playing maddalam for Kathakali?
C.S.: Not at all! They were happening side by side. In those days, Kathakali chenda maestro Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Poduval would take me to Thiruvananthapuram to play maddalam while he played chenda. Together, we performed in temples around Thiruvananthapuram. Kottakkal Sivaraman[x] also used to prefer me for his stage performances.
Chalakudi Nambissan used his imagination and improvised his panchavadyam performances impromptu. On the contrary, Narayanan Nair had his set patterns. His performances were robust and beautiful. Both used to also play maddalam for Kathakali. There was a bit of rivalry between them but even Nambissan would agree that there was no maddalam artist on a par with Nair when it came to knowledge of the instrument and its ways.
V.K.: Could you tell us about the changes that you see in panchavadyam performances today?
C.S.: These days, the lead timila artistes in panchavadyam performances[xi] recommend maddalam artists to pair with them. It shows the prominence maddalam has earned over the decades. It is not surprising that good maddalam artists find themselves increasingly busy and get better remuneration these days. Maddalam might even overshadow timila in the future.
According to me, the young learners need to be scared of their masters, so that they understand and obey each and every gesture of his and follow him on his beats. For instance, when a performance is happening, if one of my students is falling behind on the beats or forgetting to fill the gaps, I only need to glare at him to get the message across. This does not happen if the pupils are not scared of the masters.
V.K.: Panchavadyam has two major schools: Palakkad (northern) School of the late Pallavoor brothers[xii], and the southern style that had Chottanikkaran Narayana Marar, among other performers in the last century. What are their major differences?
C.S.: In Palakkad, a panchavadyam performance begins at a slow pace. It picks up the tempo gradually, and then it explodes. On the other hand, the southern style of panchavadyam wavers between high and low tempo throughout the performances. The Kuzhoor School too has had its masters.
V.K.: What is the difference between playing maddalam for Kathakali and panchavadyam?
C.S.: In Kathakali, you are lending support to the characters on stage. As a maddalam artist, you are supposed to provide accompaniment to the female characters. So, in Kathakali you cannot play according to your whims as you do in panchavadyam. After all, you have to go by the mood and steps of the female characters.
V.K.: As a maddalam player, how was it accompanying Kottakkal Kuttan Marar on his chenda?
C.S.: He would improvise a lot on the spot, so much so that it was tough for us maddalam players to find their space. When we accompanied performers like Krishnankutty Poduval or even Mannadiar, there was a set structure. With Kuttan Marar, that was not the case. We needed to be on our toes all the time, as he kept improvising and playing out his imagination.
Today’s young masters perhaps have greater command over their taps and rolls, but tend to focus too much on them, thereby ignoring the subtle nuances of the Kathakali accompaniment.
V.K.: Would you say that panchavadyam or Kathakali maddalam has improved over, say, the past 60 years? We know that audiences for both the performances have increased substantially. But what do you say about the quality of the performances?
C.S.: There has been an overall growth, undoubtedly. But there are many problems as well. I have noticed that the younger performers can be a little lax. They are not respectful to the seniors. The spirit of togetherness is also on the wane, so is mutual love.
This interview was translated by Sreevalsan T.K.
[i] Maddalam: a drum-like instrument
[ii] Panchavadyam: a temple art form of Kerala, it means an orchestra of five instruments
[iii] Chenda: a percussion instrument
[iv] A community traditionally engaged in cleaning and making flower garlands in temples
[v] Tavil: a barrel-shaped percussion instrument used in Carnatic concerts as well as ritual performances
[vi] Nadaswaram: a double-reed wind instrument
[vii] Ennam: a brief sound that recurs as a motif in a set of rhythmic cycle in a percussion concert.
[viii] Nila: rolls and taps that function as fillers between rhythmic cycles
[ix] Timila: a percussion instrument shaped like an hour-glass
[x] A Kathakali maestro known for his female roles, for which maddalam is a niche instrument
[xi] Maddalam accompanies timila in panchavayam performances. Earlier, maddalam was considered only as a supporting instrument to timila.
[xii] The famed trinity in Kerala percussion, Pallavoor Kuttan Marar, Pallavoor Kunhikuttan Marar, and Pallavoor Maniyan Marar
[xiii] Buffalo skin is used to make maddalam strings.
[xiv] Jackfruit wood is used to make the torso of the instrument.