KOCHI: Harigovindan started his tryst with sopana sangeetham as a 20-year-old novice, untrained in music or percussion.
Son of the legendary Njeralathu Rama Poduval, he had it in his genes and nothing could stop him from mastering the art form. But neither talent nor the name of his illustrious father could gain him access to the sopanam (steps leading to sanctrum sanctorium of a temple) where artists stood and practised the ritualistic music.
For the temple authorities, his bloodline was not pure enough, not a true-blue Poduval as his mother belonged to the Nair community. Denied the permission to sing hymns near the deity, at the rightful position of the artist, he decided to take the art form out of the temple. “Something my father did a long time ago, but for a different reason. He did that out of poverty, and mine was an act of rebellion,” says Njeralathu Harigovindan, a recipient of this year’s Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi award.
He took his art to a spate of public forums, breaking free from all institutionalised forms of devotion, introducing it in mainstream. “I went to schools and colleges demonstrating my art form. I taught them how to make edakka and what are the distinctive features of sopana music.
I introduced it as a stream of music without any aura of divinity and welcomed them all to try it.” In a sense he was following in the footsteps of his father, the doyen of the art form, who first presented the ‘divine music’ outside temples. “In 1960s he brought the art form to the streets.
The temple allowance those days was meager and it was more like a struggle for survival. He sang at public and private functions, even bus stands,” he says. It was the film and theatre fraternity, especially the late G Aravindan who acknowledged and popularised the art through his films like Thampu.
“The community members were outraged, presenting a temple ritual in front of the public meant an act of blasphemy. But my father was fearless as he believed in the omnipresence of god,” he says.
Sopana sangeetham was more ritual and less art during early days, a time when it was strictly confined to the world of temple rites. “This is an art form born in temples following tantric traditions and not all shrines fall into this category. They have a specific architectural format and the steps leading to the sanctrum sanctorium are called sopanam. Sopana sangeetham was considered one of the temple activities, one among the umpteen offerings to the deity.”
He says there are solid and specific reasons for the art form to get lost in the plethora of ethnic vocal styles in Kerala. “During earlier times only a miniscule of the population had access to temple premises. That means only a very small percentage had exposure to this art form. It was practised by a minority and was not meant for anything beyond the ritualistic purpose,” says Harigovindan who has conducted sopanam festivals and authored books to popularise the art.
As a means to make it more mainstream, Harigovindan added a spate of new songs to the lyrical repertoire of Sopanam. “I rendered songs in protest of political killings and social atrocities in sopanam format. I strongly believe there should be a streak of politics in all art forms. For me art without politics is a weak and vacuum instrument. An artist should always address social issues and question every threat to humanity. Today most of our artists are so full of themselves and they should really come out of that shell,” he says.
The sopanam singer is the one who retains the meditative ambiance when the doors to the sanctrum sanctorium are closed. Harigovinadan says the art is both simple and difficult in the sense it doesn’t demand any expertise in classical streams. “The real challenge lies in conjuring a kind of trance. For a long time it was locked inside temple walls as a ritual and now it’s in front of you as a pure art form,” he winds up.