Traditional percussion artists, makers hit the wrong note

Though cow is worshiped as god in many parts of the country, for the percussion artists in God's own country, the skin of the slaughtered cattle is a means of livelihood as chenda and other percussion instruments are made of the tanned skin of cattle. 

Published: 01st October 2017 01:05 AM  |   Last Updated: 01st October 2017 07:19 AM   |  A+A-

Express News Service

KOCHI: Though cow is worshiped as god in many parts of the country, for the percussion artists in God's own country, the skin of the slaughtered cattle is a means of livelihood as chenda and other percussion instruments are made of the tanned skin of cattle. While the cultural sphere of the state reverberates with rhythmic ensembles, the traditional craftsmen who toil round the year to make the instruments ready for performance before every festival season, remain a neglected lot. Further, it is a double whammy for them with the general patronage for  making percussion instruments on the wane and the Centre imposing new restrictions on cattle trade. 

An artisan engaged in the the making
of chenda near Velappaya in Thrissur

K Manikandan, secretary of the Kerala State Thukal Vadyopakarana Nirmana Sanghom, says though percussion artists are revered everywhere, the traditional craftsmen who meticulously craft the instruments are on the verge of extinction as there is no support for them from the part of the government. Even the call of the  craftsmen to grant pension for ailing artists in the sector has fallen on deaf ears. 

The plight of the sector can be seen from the fact that the sanghom has only 70 members on its muster roll in Kerala, the majority of whom are from Peruvembu village situated on the outskirts of Palakkad. Significantly, the children of these artists are not ready to follow in the footsteps of their parents as the craft and sale attract no major earnings and recognition for them, he says.

Sanalkumar  of Velappaya in Thrissur says there has been a scarcity of slaughtered cattle skin in the state after the Centre brought in some restrictions on the sale and slaughter of cattle. Now the sector is slowly limping back to normalcy. However, there is still paucity of good quality cattle skin in the wake of the drop in the arrival of  cattle from other states. The skin of the cattle of Kerala do normally have more fat content than that of those brought from other states, he says. 

If there is more fat content on the skin of the cattle, it cannot be suntanned easily and the tone of the instrument would be affected, says Sanal. Though there has been a call to switch to fibre chendas, the artists are a bit reluctant as they would not get the similar sound produced by the chenda or maddalam made of leather covers on either sides, he says. Each percussion artist has to change both the leather covers of the instrument every year for which he has to shell out at least Rs 4,500. The price of a chenda ranges from Rs 12,000-15,000 and for maddalam, it is in the range of Rs 22,000 -25,000. Further, an artist can make only half a dozen instruments a year as the craft needs great care and effort. 

The logs needed for the instruments are sourced from jackfruit trees, dried in sunlight and given shape. The hollow portion on either sides of the instrument  are then covered with the naturally processed cattle skin which includes tanning, washing, smoothening through traditional means and so on. If there is any lapse in the process, the instrument will not produce the desired sound, says Rajan, a traditional artisan from Peruvembu village, who is also the vice-president of the sanghom.
“The effort involved in making an instrument is almost equal to that of performing an instrument. But the returns from the sector is meagre, considering the effort. So the government should take steps to provide pension for ailing artists and traditional craftsmen who have crossed 50. Let this craft not fade into oblivion with no takers for it,” says Manikandan.  

Mostly, craftsmen from the Vishwakarma caste and its sub sects are engaged in the making of percussion instruments

While cow and oxen hide is mostly used for making chenda, hides of goat, cow and bull are used for making mridangam 
The guts of cattle sourced from intestine are used for making  edakka
Various kinds of instruments are made in the craft 
villages of the state

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