KOCHI: Pallavu Puraskaram, the award instituted by the state government to honour maestros in traditional percussion ensemble, in memory of legendary chenda artist Pallavur Appu Marar, turned out a blessing in disguise for many little known melam artists all over Kerala.
The previous recipients of this award, like Thrippekkulam Achutha Marar, Thrikkamburam Krishnankutty Marar and the late Chakkamkulam Appu Marar, had proved their talent in their respective fields. This year the award goes to Kombathu Kuttan Panicker, the kurumkuzhal maestro, who has headed many famous melams including the panchari melam of the famous Perumanam Pooram, Edakkunni Uthram Vilakku, Aaraattupuzha Pooram and Vrischikolsavam of the Tripunithura Sree Poornathrayeesha Temple.
This is the first time a kurumkuzhal artist is being selected for the Pallavur Puraskaram. Among the myriad melams in Kerala, the kurumkuzhal plays a pivotal role. Many stalwarts of yesteryear like Pozhankandathu Rama Panicker, Kodakara Sivaraman Nair and others proved their talent in it. Of the 120 artists in a melam, the kurumkuzhal artist’s position is in the front of the chenda artists who play the prominent edamthala (the chenda which plays variations with stick and palm). In the normal course, the number of kurumkuzhal artists will be the same as that of chenda players in the front row, around fifteen. For the various melams, the style of playing the kurumkuzhal is quite different.
For the panchari melam the kurumkuzhal accompanies the percussion ensemble from the melodious pathikaalam itself. A wind instrument accompanying a percussion ensemble is not imaginable in the conventional musical system followed by our neighbouring states.
In the panchari melam the raga meant for the kurumkuzhal is very similar to that of the gambheera naatta.
The kurumkuzhal starts in a mellifluous manner but as the melam progresses, it just links the beats of the basic rhythm. The interesting fact is that it is the leader of the kurumkuzhal team who decides the kalasham of each repeated rhythmic circle, the ‘thaalavattam’. This is done by giving a signal to the team leader of the melam. When the melam attains the climax, the anchaamkaalam, the kurumkuzhal players also adopt a frantic style with their repeated kalaashams.
When played solo, the kurumkuzhal pattu resembles a shehnai concert, but as an accompaniment, it can control the rest of the melam. Kombathu Kuttan Panicker is an exponent in presenting the kurumkuzhal pattu. Panicker presents sensitive ragas like the Shankarabharanam and the Sudha Dhanyasi effortlessly, accompanied by the rhythmic support from the chenda of the renowned chenda maestro and another recipient of the Pallavur Puraskaram, Thrippekkulam Achutha Marar. “While presenting the kurumkuzhal pattu, we elaborate the basic mood of each raga in two distinct styles,” says Kuttan Panicker. The beginning session of the kuzhal pattu is designed in such a way as to delineate the mood of the raga. In this stage the solo performer is accompanied by another kurumkuzhal artist who provides the sruthi with the help of a miniature form of the kurumkuzhal.
Kuttan Panicker recalls with gratitude the late Pappunni Panicker, who played the kurumkuzhal as sruthi in those days during the Vilakku (night procession) at the Vrischikolsavam of the Tripunithura Sree Poornathrayeesha Temple. “Nowadays the young performers have replaced this with electronic sruthi boxes,” he adds.
Later when the pattu reaches the concluding session of the delineation of the ragas, the percussionist accompanies him, first with a traditional thoppi maddalam and then on the chenda, Panicker elaborates. An elathalam player will also accompany the chenda artist to provide the basic rhythm.
Thus by all means the selection of Kuttan Panicker’s name for this year’s Pallavur Puraskaram can be considered mark of approval for the little known wind instrument which plays a pivotal role in controlling the typical Kerala percussion ensemble, which also has an identity of its own in the ritualistic kurumkuzhal pattu.
This will certainly be an inspiration for young kurumkuzhal artists like Kombathu Anilkumar and Velappaya Nandanan to do innovative experiments with this short pipe which has infinite possibilities as an accompaniment to Kerala’s own melams, edakka pradakshinam.