I first learnt of Panchavadyam amidst the jostling crowds of Thekkinadu Maidan one April. I was at the Pooram of Poorams, the Thrissur Pooram, and while the opulence of the entire celebration intrigued me, I took special note of the hundred odd artistes, clad in dhotis, producing a rush of rhythms on their various instruments. A friendly local present there told me that the group of men constituted what they traditionally called an Ilanhithara Melam — an ensemble of percussion instruments — one of the main elements of the Thrissur Pooram.
Kerala has a rich repertoire of musical instruments ranging from simple hand-held instruments to elaborate string and percussion ones. They normally fall under two categories: Kutuka or percussion instruments and Paatu or wind instruments. Ensembles comprising different combinations of these instruments form a major part of Kerala’s musical repertoire. Ensemble music is usually of two kinds: Chendamelam and Panchavadyam, both allied group performances, which are usually performed outdoors.
When I went back home after my three-month sojourn in Kerala, I was full of stories, anecdotes and questions. And my father, who as a boy, had spent most of his summers in the Palakkad district of Kerala, had answers to most. As a youngster, he would often visit the various temples of Pallavur. But within the compound of our traditional tharavad too, there was a huge temple devoted to Lord Shiva and very often Thayambaka or Panchavadyam sessions would keep the family and the neighbours enthralled. My father remembers hanging around with his cousins, the air would be heavy with the smell of sweet incense, and sounds of hollow drums. “Dhak dhak dhak…the sounds still plays in my head from time to time,” he tells me, full of nostalgia.
The Panchavadyam which literally means an orchestra of five instruments is a highly energetic group of sixty (can go up to a hundred or more) artistes who stand in a line facing each other — the beats start slowly, rise gradually and finally hits a heady crescendo. Perhaps the biggest and most popular Panchavadyam celebration takes place in the Thrissur Pooram every year, but small-scale versions happen in temples across Kerala during festivals, religious occasions and even cultural events. A typical Panchavadyam set goes on for several hours and consists of five instruments: Maddalam, Ilathalam, Kombu Edakka, and Thimila. The maddalam is a barrel-shaped instrument made from jack wood and is believed to have originated in the 13th century. The ilathalam is like a local variant of a cymbal while the kombu is a wind instrument made of brass and copper. The edakka and thimila are both percussion instruments shaped like hourglasses.
I spent a good part of my vacation at Vasundhara Sarovar Premiere, a resort in the Alleppey district. One evening, as I sat in the resort’s large amphitheatre, strains of a pre-recorded Panchavadyam music wafted through the air. A set of terracotta sculptures stood behind the circular platform at the amphitheatre. The sculpted figures, representing a traditional Panchavadyam ensemble, stood carrying the five instruments. The manager of the resort, Mr Anand, explained to me what Panchavadyam really stood for. “Pancha means five and vadyam refers to instruments — these are the five temple instruments of Kerala,” he said.
A melam or a mathalam is a common South Indian name for a set of percussion instruments. The most common melam is the Chendamelam. The chenda is a percussion instrument comprising a cylindrical wooden drum, about two feet long, and hung around the neck of the artiste, who beats only one side of it with sticks. Chendamelams are performed across temples in Kerala and can be of different forms. The Panchari melam is one. It consists of four instruments: the chenda, ilatham, kombu and kuzhal (a traditional double reed wind instrument). “Apart from the Panchari, there is the Pandi melam too. The difference between the two is that latter is performed outside the temple. While the Panchari melam happens inside the temple,” Anand informs me. A full-length Pandi melam lasts more than two-and-a-half hours and consists of the chenda, ilthalam, kuzhal and kombu.
However, contrary to popular belief, it’s not only temples and religious occasions that traditional music is performed at. It has an important place in domestic society too. For example, the bards of the Pulluva community are called by a number of families to sing in their homes and bring them prosperity and blessings. The songs are accompanied by a simple string instrument called the Pulluvan veena and an earthen pot called the kudam. And just how music plays a unifying role in societies across the world, it does so in Kerala too: the chenda, despite being primarily used in temple festivals, is as common a sight at church feasts and other celebrations as well.