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K.C. Narayanan on Melam Traditions of Kerala

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The interview was conducted by S. Gopalakrishnan in Delhi in 2015

Many times the thought has crossed my mind... what are the most significant contributions of Kerala in the field of culture or art? I feel that the first and foremost contribution is its visual theatre tradition, the ancient and the earliest of all Indian arts. Kutiyattam, Kathakali, Krishnanattam, and several other folk arts….Kerala has an ancient, exalted visual art tradition that was evolved, codified and stylised from all these folk arts. At the same time there is another important tradition that too was evolved, crodified and stylised. And that is related to sound. The variety of percussion instruments and formations of talas and percussion performances. Kerala’s two major contributions are in the fields of sound and visual arts. We mentioned sound, but that doesn’t include human voice. Because the application and stylization of human voice has not had great growth or much significance in Kerala. What grew productive in Kerala was not voice but noise, that is, sound produced from things.


There are plenty of bamboo groves in Kerala. But flute has never found a footing here. More than sruti-based music, it is rhythmic formations and sculptures that reigned here. So let us think about the kind of sounds or rather sound formations or percussion arts that have grown in Kerala. Vadyams or percussion instruments are generally divided into four. The most important and the oldest of them are the skin vadyams—where the aperture on side or both sides of a hollow vessel or tree trunk are fitted with membrane. Then there are the wind instruments where the sound is produced by blowing into them. The third are the idiophone instruments where the sound is produced from beating on ghana things. And the fourth are the stringed instruments where the sound is produced by playing on taut strings. So there are anavaddha or skin vadyams, instrument vadyams, stringed and wind vadyams.


There aren't many wind and stringed vadyams in Kerala. But there is a profusion of skin vadyams. There are several varieties of chenda depending upon region, caste etc—para, irutudi viralam, panchamukha vadyam, nakaram—instruments that create diverse sounds that people haven’t even heard of. Another fact to be noted is that they are not really accompanying instruments. Indeed there are a few wind instruments like the kurunkuzhal. But a kurunkuzhal concert like a flute concert…no, that never did happen. When a pandi melam begins, kurunkuzhal is played first. So the tradition is to use kurunkuzhal as an accompaniment to talam or tala. Thus talam becomes the main constituent of music, and sruti and everything else accompanies it. So that is the distinctive feature of the instrument music in Kerala. Vocal music was not very significant in cultural Kerala. Talam assumes great magnitude and is ubiquitous across the land. This is evident even in the language. Take the title of an old Malayalam movie. ‘Talam thettiya tarattu’ (Lullaby with the wrong talam). Lullaby has no talam as such. It is just a humming. But still the word talam is crucial in the phrase. There are many sayings in Malayalam associated with chenda. Like Thallu kollan chenda, panam vangan mararu, Chenda kottikkukka etc. This goes to show how strong a hold chenda and talam have on the people of the land. 


Take the example of classical music concerts. Percussion accompanies the vocal music. Yes, it gets to play solo in taniyavarthananam where instruments like mridangam, ghatam, ganjira are played, but not for more than 20 minutes. Moreover it serves as an accompaniment to the vocal music. What is particular about Kerala’s tradition is that we have concerts of sound creations, where percussion is played for three to three and half hours, that are complete in itself. A vocal concert is an indoor programme. But the sound from a chenda can be heard for miles away. It is as if a whole village or town becomes an auditorium—sound travels across land and spreads from village to village. Listening to the vadyam becomes an experience of listening to the echo of the land. An outdoor, a group experience. Generally 120 artists are needed to complete a classical melam like a Panchari melam. These 120 people are like part of a team. They may have travelled from far-flung villages to the venue for the performance. In the evening all these people come together on the spot, and without any rehearsal or a conductor, as if they are practising the drum-beating, a melam just happens, spread over three and a half to four hours. Same is the case with Panchavadyam. The way they should play, the pauses, the structure, all that is pre-determined. It is an amazing pattern. The artistes get together and bring the pattern to life. That’s all. So the coming together of artistes from different parts of the land, artistes with different vadyams, the explosion of diverse talam, vadyam and sruti…the experience in its entirety is called melam. If we are asked what is the most important of all Kerala’s percussion compositions we can definitely say it is the Melam.


There are several types of melams. Melam is divided according to the talam it is based on. Kerala boats of a vastly diverse and rare talams. But as they are group performances only the basic talams are used. Chembada is the most frequently used talam. Panchari, tripuda, adantha, chamba…all these are some of the major talams employed in melams. Mainly four major talams are employed. Rare talam structures like dhruva melam, madya melam too are exercised, but they are not very popular. The melam is named after the talam it is based on. So chembada melam is based on chembada talam, panchari melam on panchari talam, adantha melam on adantha talam and so on. But pandi melam is based on adantha or tripuda talam. It is called pandi melam due to other reasons. So about 120 people—among them artistes playing kombu, kuzhal, drummers on both sides of chenda (chenda has two sides and two sets of players, one set who beat the rhythm and other set who play)—come together. An established syntax is already there. They only follow it. What happens here is not the display of one’s creativity but the effort of the players playing to complete and fulfil the syntax.


There is another percussion performance that exercises the imagination and creativity of the performers. It is called Tayambaka. One player will play the chambada talam or something else as the base.  The others play different patterns and ennams (computations)—the jati and nada of sounds—and build it up to the climax. Thus there are two types of performance in chenda—the melam-based and imagination-based.


There is another melam that combines both these above-said aspects. Fulfilling the syntax and playing out the imagination. It is called Pancha-vadyam. Five vadyams are played together in Panchavadyam. Simultaneously instruments like timila, shankhu, idaykka, madhalam, chengila, kurunkuzhal, kombu are played. Of these instruments, timila, madhalam and idaykka get a chance to display their creativity and imagination.


So then, the vadya melams in Kerala can be broadly classified into three- melam-based, imagination-based and the third, panchavadyam, a combination of the first two. Historically speaking it is the melams that focus on syntax that originated first. Melam originated in the 16th century. It finds mention in Kunchan Nambiar’s works. Pandimelam oru ottu chenda. Kunchan Nambiar lived in 1780s (1705–1770). By then melam had become a familiar word in Kerala. The legend goes that it was schematized in the 16th century in Peruvanam village. Probably it is true.


Later, the creative or imagination-based melam came into existence towards the end of 19th century and the beginning of the 20th century. Tayambaka, as we know it today, developed at places Tiruviluamala, Trithala, Trikkavu in the district of Palakkad. So we can say that tayambaka originated and developed on the two banks of the river Bharatapuzha. And it was after another 100 years, in 1930s, the formation of pancha vadyam was conceived. During the years between 1900 and 1940 the percussion art in Kerala evolved into three rich branches, and attained the classical form that we see now. This progress in the field of percussion art is Kerala’s biggest contribution to culture. What may be reasons for it?


Kottu or the art of percussion has grown tremendously. If we take the logic of the old caste-based society, the growth of kottu could happen only when there was a dominant section fully dedicated to it. For metallurgy to develop metalsmiths are needed. Only if there are people who could dedicate themselves wholly to the melting and moulding, and the chemistry of metals would metallurgy develop. It has certainly developed greatly in Kerala. Take the examples of urali, chengila, Aranmula mirror etc. Likewise, particular castes were committed to the percussion art—Pothuval and Marar. They traditionally performed  the menial tasks in temples. They lived in the vicinity of temples and lived off them. In those times the temples were immensely wealthy making them the largest employers in the soceity. Rajan Gurukkal has researched on how the temple became the largest employer and the focal point of an economic system in Kerala in the 11th and 12th centuries. In the 11th century, the temple at Thiruvalla used to get 1 lakh para paddy from its tenant farmers. That only could mean that the temples were indeed the largest employers then.


Rituals like pattu, kottu etc have their roots in the indigenous worships and ceremonies associated with kaavu or the sacred groves used for worships. When temples came into being, these native rituals progressed to be a part of the temple worships. Gradually as the temples amassed wealth, the performers of these rituals who were basically from temple-associated castes like marar and pothuval, were able to survive on the produce that came from the fields managed by rest of the society. They themselves could manage to live without taking part in the fieldwork. Thus the then social circumstances were conducive for the castes like marar and pothuval to dedicate completely to the research of percussion art and improvisation of the instruments. That is how they improved the old chenda, determined the sound positions, made numerous ennams and enabled groups of performers to gather and play together in melam. By the time Kunchan Nambiar entered the picture, very large sound compositions were already in place. These developments happened only in Kerala because of its above mentioned special social circumstances. But I don’t agree to the view that a particular art form would grow only because of socially favourable circumstances. Only when the second ingredient—the artist’s creativity—also mingles would the art form grow. Thus, putting aside the favourable social circumstances, what innovations or creativity did marar or potuval bring to percussion art? They did bring in innovations like what Kunchan Nambiar calls uruttu chanda. That is a practical  innovation which became a unique contribution of the drummers of Kerala.  


Drums are used in all parts of the world. There are several kinds of drums in Africa. If you want to increase the speed you only need to quicken the time of your beat or the way the stick falls perpendicularly on the drumhead. There is a limit to this type of playing. And we don’t have control over it. The sound is not rounded. In Kerala the beating on the drumhead was developed and an innovation was brought about. That is called urutti kottuka. That is, both the hands are used. With one hand you beat tha. And with the stick you beat put but not perpendicularly dhi… (demonstrates). You time the beat by flicking your palm inwards and outwards. We can play this in varying speeds. In Malayalam we call it kalam (demonstrates varying degree of speed or kalam). Thus we double and triple the speed, so when we play the beat ta-ki-tta, we can play it in a wide variety of ways than when we play it beating the stick perpendicularly. Firstly, we can count our beats clearly. We can count even 32 ta ki tta… 16 ta ki tta, 8 ta ki tta. I can calculate how much does each of my beats weigh. When each beat of ta ki tta falls on the different sound positions of the drum, it transports us to another world. We feel as if the sound has changed. nakinna…nakinna…dikinna…dikinnaa…These two are very different sounds. We feel as if the sound had changed entirely. Now let us take the word ta ki tta… the computations that could be attained by all the possible combinations of this three-letter word. Like ta ki tta, ta ri ki da.. is another beat that we can play in urutti kottal. This too we can double the speed. This doubling and tripling of speed all depend on your expertise. That too we are just not speeding up our pace. We can absolute control over our beating. If you want to beat 24 ta ri ki da you can beat the precise number. 16 ta ri ki da means you can beat the exact number. You needn’t count even. It will come automatically. The control over our beating, the roundness of the sound...There is great scope in this type of beating a drum (urutti kottal). And the possibilities of improvements are tremendous. Takatarikida, taka tirikida, tarikida, tarikida, takatarikida, tarikida… you can play this in four kalam. If you use the four sound positions on the drumhead you can multiply this by four or six. So with this innovation of urutti kottuka, a sky of endless possibilities opened up. And also the social circumstances were conducive. When certain castes dedicated themselves to chenda, the improvements in its playing became certain. So, when circumstances and creativity combine great achievements happen. So the performances on chenda in Kerala was greatly evolved by the 16th century.


Now we can look at the structure of the tala. What all talas can we beat? Let us take a melam. I mentioned the panchari melam earlier. Let us see who form the players of the melam. 11 artists play the ennams (demonstrates). One drummer plays the basic tala. The chambada. The metallic sound of ilatalam accompanies. Then there is the kuzhal playing. Elephants stand around, flapping their ears. The whole place is illuminated by the soft light from burning torches. This is like a huge setting. This is not an indoor concert. This is part of a huge outdoor setting. The sights from nature...big torches...the huge sounds...with crowds as witness...we are re-enacting an ancient scene from the memory of our ancient tribal life. That is why in his poem Sahyan’s makan, Vylopilli (Vyloppili Sreedhara Menon [1911–1985] says when he sees the ancient set up it is not a festive ground but an ancient forest itself. The drumbeats from the Thekinkaadu maidan (the oval open ground in front of the Vadukkumnathu temple in Thrissur where Thrissur pooram takes place annually) remind us of the very tribal, primitive, sights and sounds coming from distances away, the smells of smoke, fire and also forest fire. The drumbeat originated in the oak forests. So each of these melams reflects the memories of a forest. So then melam becomes not just sounds made by beating on the chenda, but also by our memories, ancient and forgotten symbols, with smells and sights of fire and other elements to combine to form the great visual experience. We immerse ourselves in it. Thus four types of performers—those who beat the tala, the chenda players, then the ilatala players and the kurunkkuzhal players…A panchari melam is made up of all of them. They will count up to more than 100. The tala players will be the double of 11. Then the illatala playes will be double of that and then there are the players of kombu. Then there are the mahouts. There are bigger melams with 17 chenda perfromers. Let us roughly analyse the structure of such a panchari melam.


Its talam goes like this---tha…di…thom….When the melam begins the tempo is extremely slow. When six is multiplied it becomes the duration of 12. When it is multiplied again it becomes the 24 aksharakaalam. When it is multiplied again it becomes 96, The beat goes very, very slow, spread very thin. After a beat there is time for a cup of tea before the next one falls. So there is no richness of tala. Moreover all the players won’t be able to maintain this tempo. What would then be done? That’s where we come to the mathematics conceived in the Middle Ages. Because, when six is brought down it becomes 96. So generally it is easy to beat the 96 aksharakaalam in multiplications of 12. If you beat adi tala 12 times it becomes the first kalam of a big and slow panchari melam. This is just simple arithametics. According to it 96 aksharakalam is divided into equal beats and if aaditala or chembada talam is beat 12 times it becomes the panchari’s very basic kalam. Now if you have to increase the tempo and take it to the next kalam, chembada is played six times. Then it becomes 48 akshara kalam. So in the next kalam chembada kalam is played three times. In the next kalam, chembada is played 1½ times and the 12 akshara kalam is completed. Then the melam is continued. If it is played this way even a player who is not very strong with tala can follow the tempo. Chembada tala is very easy to beat. Because it is the rhythm of our gait. It is not possible to walk in  tripuda or tishrajati. We all walk in tarikida…tarikida…with our feet in multiples of two. That is the most natural tala. That is why chembada is called the aditala. It is the tala in which a child learns to walk. Aditala is the foundation stone of the tala structure of Kerala. Whatever tala we are playing we can play in chembada. We will be able to complete it. Whether it is panchari or chamba melam. Chamba melam is in multiples of ten. If we beat 80 in ten chembada it becomes the tala of chembada mela. So no matter whatever tala is being played, it is enough to play chembada. Such simplification is integral to the unity, knowledge and the harmony of the team.


Every talam can be beat in adi talam. Adi talam becomes the all-talam and the most pervasive talam. It is like that in panchari too. Though the first tala is distributed in 96 aksharakala we won’t feel the slowness. Because the chembada beats are distributed at equal intervals When we say 12 chembada—the beats are not counted—divide each chembada vattom into differnet patterns. Take the figure eight. The difference lies in how the talam is played. Eight can be played in different ways (demonstrates…) The talam is the same but the difference lies in the experience of the sound. You can play this chembada vattam in various units. When you are thorough in this there is no need even to count the beats. This complicated mathematics is made so effortless, as natural as the blood running in the veins in the body, that even a person with dubious sense of talam can follow it without trouble. Demonstrates…


The pattern is simplified so that everyone who gather together from different parts can easily participate and follow it. The framework is laid out clear and simple and there are very few computations to fill in. When the computations are filled in one after the other, let us see what is happening. One, the beats will quicken effortlessly and spontaneously. The progress of speed from the first kalam should be as as effortless as the transition of the moon. The moon grows not in quartz but in analog. Analog is slow growth. Like that of the moon the kalam will grow slowly and effortlessly. By the time the first kalam ends it would have reached the base of the second kalam. So then such a structure requires a conductor who can mentally visualize the growth pattern till its culmination. Such a person who keeps tracks of the pramanam of the kalam is called pramani. In Malayalam the word means manager. The word itself comes from the lexicon of melam.


What does the conductor do? He imagines the melam to be three to three and a half- hour sound pattern and guides the performers to play—to pick up speed while beating on the chenda is easy, everyone can do that—so the conductor keeps a rein on the players seeing that they do not increase speed, keeps a strict watch to see that the each of the kalams wind up within the prescribed time. He mentally calculates the time required and after each kalam conveys that to the performers thorugh gestures and movements, guides all of them through the pancharimelam. By the time it comes to its culmination at the end of three and a half hours it would seem not as if a road has been travelled, as if a mountain has been climbed. Because this melam is like mountaineering. When you start climbing you go slow and easy. You climb up and up till in a state of intoxication, at the acme of talam, you burst out in an orgasmic climax. Now when a melam attains its peak, what could the only sound that would challenge it? Only fireworks would do. Fireworks is the culmination of the culture of sound, we can say. Explosion. First an explosion of chenda beats, then an explosion of fireworks. Explosion of light, explosion of sound. That is how a melam ends, climbing several steps of explosion.


There are several types of melam. Pandimelam is slightly different. There is no division or multiplication. It is a continuous narrowing of the pattern of a melam in a gradual ascent. This is typical of the chenda performance in Kerala. Starting very slowly from the base, ascending the kalams gradually or doubling; till in two or three hours it peaks and explodes. This is the typical pattern of a pandimelam performance. Panchavadyam is little bit different. Because that is an imagination-based item. For the imagination-based there will be a player in the centre beating the chenda. There should be talam for that beating. To give the talam there will be two persons on both sides. Three chenda players will accompany–dhim dhim dhaam… There will be players playing ilatalam.


Let us observe such a tayambaka. There are two or three stages in a tayambaka performance. The word tayamba is a combination of two words—tayam and vaka. Tayam is a variation of talam. Vaka means the mental imagination of the performer. The word tayambaka means the imaginative playing of talam. How varied can you play the talam—that depends on your creativity. But still there is a pattern here too as there should be variety. The first stage is slow-paced. Chembada is mainly followed here. Aditalam. After that the kooru changes. Kooru means stage. Here you can play adantha, chamba… Chemba can be played in slow pace. Vilambakalam. And also in normal kalam. Final is in the ekatalam. So there are three stages—aditalam, then a creative, fun-filled talam and then ekatalam. Thus a tayambaka performance ascends through these three stages. The principle of both melam and tayambaka is the same. Begin slowly, increase the pace gradually and explodes at the peak.


In melam the players follow the grammar of the already laid down pattern. Here the creativity lies in structuring it in such a way that it ends in four hours. There is no such thing in tayambaka. You can add any number of layers. The amazement, the creativity, the variety…the amazement comes in when they play creatively. We would think this stream of talam would join the flow at a certain point but it would not. Instead it would channel to some other route and course through till it joins the flow. So this percussion amazes us, tantalizingly leads us in different ways, separating where we thought it would end, ending where we thought it would separate, thus leading us to a world of diverse experiences of patterns of separation and joining and ending in a peak is called tayambaka.


Now let us look at the third, the panchavadya, where melam and imagination mingles. There is timila, maddhalam, idaykka, and sonkhu and ilathalam. These are the five instruments used. Of all these timila is the most important. All the seven timila players get opportunity to display their creativity. The maddhalam players also get chance. They play out their individual creativity and finally come together. The performance gets richer then. At the same time the performer has chance to display his prowess in playing timila. Before the advent of tayambaka we did not have that many talented performers. They would all play for the melam, that’s all. When tayambaka began to be played we began to see excellent tayambaka players. The performance by Trithala Krishnan Kutti Potuval can be pointed out as an example to underline the fact that individualism began to play a big part in percussion field in Kerala towards the end of the 19th century. And the panchavadyam happens when this individualism and melam come together. Panchavadyam was started in 1930s by Venkichan Swami. The echoes must have been there before too. Its base is in over a thousand akshara kalam, the panchari’s base is in 90 aksharakalam—that itself shows how mammoth the panchavadyam’s base is.  The synchronized playing played by diverse performers, and brought to head in three or four hours is the ultimate example of imagination. We cannot imagine its scope now.


If you ask me who the genius of the 20th century is in the art of percusson only one name comes to mind. That of Venkichan Swamy. He created two things. 1. The way in which the beats on chenda and madhalam come together in Kathakali. It is in a special way. One beat falls in the gap of the other’s beats. Beats on both don’t fall simultaneously. If the beat on maddhalam fall at the same time as that on chenda the acoustic pleasure diminishes. Adikina, adinninaa...the sound from the chenda and as if to support it, the sound from maddhalam...nnum, nnum... (demonstrating) When we join hands, how the fingers of one hand are inserted in to the gaps of the other, likewise when the beats of maddhalam are inserted into the gaps of the chenda beats a pattern is created and enforced into practice. Venkichan Swamy and Subramanya Bhattar together created such a pattern and brought it into practice. This was in the 1920s. K.P.S. Menon talks about the change this pattern brought in the field of Kathakali. If it had not happened there would have been no kathakali melam. There would be no Krishnan kutti Pothuval, there would be no Appukuttan Pothuval. We have to look upon Venkichan Swamy and Subramanya Bhattar as the modern geniuses of the 20th century. They showed great imagination, romanticism towards sound, and passion for talam. This growth did not happen in vocal music in Kerala. That is very surprising. This happened on its own in Kerala. Such an innovation, technical innovation, creative innovation, urutti kottuka, creating tayambaka that is purely based on imagination… then with all these create an entirely another thing. Why such individual creations like tayambaka came into existence? That is because of the emergence of Carnatic music. Even by the 18th century the Tamil Brahimins had started to migrate from the banks of Kaveri to Palakkad. The Palakkad king had invited some Brahmin families as the Nambodiris had excommunicated him and he needed Brahmins to perform religious rituals. The Travancore king Marthanda Varma too faced the same problem. When the Kerala Brahmins deserted him he brought in the Tamil Brahmins. Two things: 1. For  performing poojas, 2. For doing clerical jobs—accounting, and other bereucratic jobs. With them came the music. A new world of music. Concerts. A single person can perform a vocal concert. Then why not in percussion too? So the Carnatic classical concerts and singers brought into Kerala the possibilties of individualism in the art of percussion. That is the greatest contribution of Tamil Brahmins to Kerala.


We can put this in another way. Metaphorically there are two materials needed for the growth of an art form. The flavour of the soil of the land. But just this flavour is not enough. It needs breeze. The pollination that the breeze brings in. The elements of the soil, and the elements from the rich wind—own land and the neighbouring land—the meeting point of influences.


Then I said mentioned about the purity of the art form earlier. This purity doesn’t come on its own.                         


The orginal culture of any land happens as a result of the coming together of several influenecs, leading to the emergence of contributons and art forms. The percussion art form in Kerala is one such example.


Edasseri (Edasseri Govindan Nair [1906–1974] sang:


Bhagyam kedilloru nadinum

Innu ayalvakkangalil sahakaricheeduvan


So then the neighboring land in the form of breeze and own land in the form of soil—meeting of these two created what we now call Kerala’a indigenous art form. A new form is created using influences creatively from inside and outside Kerala. That includes Carnatic music too. That too in a land where there was no vocal. So then the music from outside made possible the flourishing of not music but percussion. That is another strange thing.