Facing the deity atop a towering, bedecked elephant, they stand shirtless with the chenda, a cylindrical percussion instrument, suspended along their shoulders. With the accompaniment of the ilathalam (a cymbal-like metallic instrument), kombu (a kind of natural horn) and kuzhal (a double reed wind instrument), the chenda becomes a centrepiece of the ‘panchari melam’, the feverish ensemble of every major temple festival in central Kerala. Without a ‘panchari melam’, a festival feels incomplete. Performed as an offering to the deity, the panchari melam, over three hours long goes through five phases, beginning slowly with the ‘pathikalam’ (first phase), picking up pace through the second and third phases and ultimately reaching a frenetic crescendo at the end of the fifth phase. It’s a spectacle that arouses emotion in even the most inhibited among men and women.
For centuries, the melam has been exclusively a male affair. Women, in large numbers, are known to throng temples in the late evenings, freely swaying to the rhythm of the chenda but never actually picking up the instrument. The warning of physical exertion is often given as a reason considering it has to be performed for hours, mostly in the heat. But over the last decade, a delightful shift has taken shape across temples and ‘vadya kala’ centres, bringing more women to the forefront. Radhika Babu George, a 22-year-old civil engineer, became a part of that change as she marked her ‘arangettam’ (debut performance) at the historically-significant annual festival of the Ernakulam Shiva Temple. The only woman among 15 performers that evening, Radhika is part of a contingent that’s growing stronger in numbers each year.
“I was having the best time. It didn’t feel like we played for an hour and a half. It was thrilling to play the chenda,” Radhika, sitting in a cafe, remembers her performance. “This guy playing the ‘kombu’ standing in front of me, every five minutes, he would be like, ‘play, play’ and sort of push me (laughs). So it was nice to have that kind of interaction with him.”
The aftermath, though is tough. “After my first practice, I wasn’t able to move my shoulders. It’s physically demanding. You have to be strong,” she says.
For Radhika, turning to the chenda was not as taxing like it has been for some of the others. She has a strong base in percussion, having begun to learn to play the tabla at the age of five. Spurred by her mother, a sociology professor at a college in Kochi, Radhika moved to drums as she advanced in school.
“I remember seeing the Beatles film ‘Help’ in which Ringo Starr was the focus. I was attracted to his drumming,” says the 22-year-old, who works at her father’s construction firm.
In between, she also tried her hand at mastering the ‘mridangam’, a percussion instrument part of the Carnatic music ensemble. It was sometime in March last year, well after her graduation from college, that Radhika enrolled for chenda classes. For someone who spent a long time playing drums to western vocals, a shift to a different kind of percussion was exciting.
“The posture and the technique of moving the stick is different. The wrists while playing chenda move in and out instead of up and down in drums,” says Radhika, who was the only woman in a class of boys many of whom, far younger than her.
“For most of the melam, you use one palm and one stick. It’s only well in the fifth phase, that you play with both sticks. So the hand hurts terribly,” she adds.
Quite interestingly, until the penultimate day of the performance, Radhika says, they practiced hitting on a block of stone, learning to adapt to the rhythm, to memorise the ‘tha-ki-da’s and the ‘tha-ri-ki-da’s. Two days before the performance, the group of 15 picked up their chendas, and practiced for one last time.
“She has a sense of the rhythm. She has good catching power,” says Radhika’s guru R L V Shal, who has been teaching ‘chenda vadyam’ to young kids for over a decade. Over the years, he has found the occasional one odd female student in his class, who learnt the instrument but rarely made a career out of it.
Physical ability is the big factor, according to Shal. “We are always happy to teach them (women). But it would be quite difficult for them to match a man,” he adds.
Has Radhika been able to cross over? The sensory overload at the chenda melam where she performed had the audience moved. And that is an indication that the drum roll will go on. “I had a lot of grandmothers come to me after the show, like really proud, it felt almost like they are telling me, oh we wished we could have done it when we were young, so sweet they were. They were so happy and that made me very happy.”
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