Ten Fingers Spark Against Two Sticks

Tabla wizard Zakir Hussain performs opposite Mattannur Sankarankutty Marar in the top chenda drummer’s native Kerala, marking a first in global percussion fusion.
Ten Fingers Spark Against Two Sticks

The ustad arrived on the famed land exactly a week after the full moon rose above its summer sky. For temple-ensemble maniacs in God’s Own Country, both were an occasion for wild rejoice. Sort of a prayer in revelry. An intimate pilgrimage that anyone can join. They just did it—and there is more to the party(like is the case in any season).

Zakir Hussain knew the momentousness of the event when the globetrotting percussionist was felicitated in the heartland of a south Indian heritage village. Peruvanam, rugged and scenic, is just south of Thrissur, which anyway boasts of being Kerala’s cultural capital. For the locals, the tabla exponent may be a haloed star from beyond the Western Ghats or the Vindhyas, but the sexagenarian who part-resides in America has for long had his exposure to their coastal state’s aesthetics around its traditional drums.

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Chenda, maddalam, timila, mizhavu and edakka are Dravidian instruments familiar to Zakir for over two decades now. Their timber, sound-producing techniques and, above all, the symphony feel while lining up together, has wowed the maestro during his random trysts with classical Kerala orchestras such as melam, panchavadyam and tayambaka, besides in their conventional fusion at stage arts like Koodiyattam and Kathakali.

Eighteen years have passed since Zakir gave music to a Malayalam movie that captures the (imagined) tragedies-strung life of an actor-dancer of Kathakali—the four-century- old ballet that conventionally banks on Hindu mythological themes narrated through gesture-centric dance in elaborate costumes to lyrics set to beats enhanced by the taps and rolls on the chenda, maddalam and the edakka.

The Indian-French- German coproduction, Vanaprastham, essays the central character’s pleasures and pangs—with Zakir doing the backdrop audio scores suiting the 1940s Kerala in the two-hour film.

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Even before that endeavour, the tabla wizard had sensed the grandeur and intricacies of Kerala’s traditional ensembles when they annually made inroads into Mumbai where he grew up. The commercial metropolis used to host—as it continues to—shows of chenda masters in big formations called melam and much smaller ones called tayambaka, where the focus would be on the lead chenda instrumentalist. Those 90-minute concerts organised by a Malayali cultural organisation called Keli often left Zakir with admiration, which he would openly demonstrate in a state of awe.

“How do you stand so long with the weighty (12-kg) chenda slung down your shoulder!” he has wondered.

“That waywe bear far less physical strain (as the tabla is played in sitting posture).”

A ‘Keli’ function in early 2009 saw the presence of a renowned ethnic drummer, who the ustad happened to meet. His name: Mattannur Sankarankutty Marar—incidentally, the same man who played as a sidekick to superstar Mohanlal’s Vanaprastham hero. Eight years later, this week, the two were to share stage in a give-and- take exercise down the peninsula—in Peruvanam. This ancient village, Zakir had learnt from Keli’s founder K. Ramachandran, is the cradle of four-hour melams that involve no less than 150 members performing in tropical nights lit up by country torches that add to the glitter of caparisoned elephants with crimson parasols atop them.

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Middle-aged Ramachandran wanted to cap Keli’s ongoing 25th-year celebrations with an evening in his native Peruvanam as well. And make it an opportunity to build an art-inspired link between Mumbai and Thrissur. Thus was brought the ustad to 1,400-year- old melam’s homestead, where Zakir was also felicitated with an ornate bracelet—called veerashrumkhala in regional parlance—amid a galaxy of cultural leaders that included Peruvanam Kuttan Marar, a frontline anchor of present-day melam.

At age 66, Zakir sat with Sankarankutty Marar, four years younger to the tabla virtuoso. At a century-old school compound in Peruvanam’s humid air, both masters sweated it out—only that the mundu-clad chenda player was typically bare-chested. The 40-minute jugalbandi—their first-ever artistic collaboration—was formatted largely on the pattern of a tayambaka, where an unhurried start will gradually pick up and try a different rhythmic cycle midwaybefore gaining more momentum and virtually exploding in a fast-paced frenzy. All across the venture that wove patterns along the eight-beat chembada talam in the beginning that gave way to adanta in 3+4 format and eventually entered ekatalam in single taps, Zakir followed Marar with mutual respect.

It took the two masters a mere 30-minute rehearsal earlier in the day to come up with the show before a huge audience that spilled to outside of the hall, viewing the proceedings on giant screens fixed not far from Peruvanam’s Mahadeva temple with the state’s tallest sanctorum. At their hotel room in the forenoon, Zakir and Marar firmed up the rhythmic trajectory after a talk spanning ten minutes, says Ramachandran. How come chenda got the lead role? “Well, Marar did (jocularly) tell the ustad that he is a small boy (‘Kutty’ means child in Malayalam), but Zakir replied with a guffaw: ‘You are a guru to me’,” recalls the chief organiser, who is also a documentary filmmaker.

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The February 19 evening also saw a mizhavu concert by wizard Kalamandalam V.K.K. Hariharan, followed by a panchavadyam procession led by Peruvanam Krishnakumar, escorting the ustad on to the stage. There, Kuttan Marar led a 30- minute melam recital of the Pandi stream with a group of artistes playing the chenda, ilathalam (cymbals), kombu (horn) and kuzhal (pipe). The Zakir-Marar fusion was preceded by an hour-long tabla session where the ustad got sarangi accompaniment by Dilshad Khan. The felicitation function was attended by personalities across the spectrum of administration and the arts.

The Sunday before that, a village near Peruvanam held its annual pooram festival where on the full-moon night a four-hour melam was staged in front of the Kuttanelloor temple, where seven decked-up tuskers typically formed a row in front of the gopuram gateway. Just above the middle elephant that carries the deity of the shrine was the big yellow moon pouring light on the red umbrellas. Facing them stood top percussionists till the early sunrays lent a different shine to the concluding phase.

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In a fortnight from now, it is a similar pooram at the vintage Peruvanam temple.

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