‘You have to know your art inside out’

Filmmaker and culture enthusiast K. Ramachandran has been hosting Keli, a festival of arts in Mumbai for more than two decades now. The arts of Peruvanam village are of particular interest to him, and the festival often focuses on Melam and Koodiyattam. He is now documenting Pervuvanam’s unique position on Kerala’s cultural map. Excerpts from an interview:

What are your earliest recollections of Peruvanam’s percussion tradition?

I recall, during the Bhagavathi parra, when the goddess came visiting the homes of the devout, the Marars would play the chenda. Those were my earliest memories of its beats. Then of course we grew up hearing the sound of the drums at the annual pooram. In a sense, the Melam is a part of the cultural life of the village.

What was the motivation behind your project, The Saga of a Village?

We had reached 25 years at Keli, hosting performing arts, especially Kerala arts in Mumbai. Melams were an integral part of the events. I thought we should also shed some light on Peruvanam’s distinct contributions to the world of arts. I had also done Pranathi, a documentary on Peruvanam Kuttan Marar. So, we decided to go ahead with the project and had it inaugurated by Zakir bhai this February, in Peruvanam.

What is the key to Peruvanam’s place on Kerala’s cultural map?

It has a rich audience for music, especially Melam, and they are knowledgeable and a pleasure for artistes to perform. It is a challenge to play for an audience like this. You have to know your art inside out. It isn’t just the chenda, there are also the Koodiyattam artistes who inhabit the village. Its cultural capital is remarkable.

To what do you attribute Melam’s popularity?

I would say it is the fact that it is a natural, easy art to absorb. You can, as a listener, absorb it casually, by letting it sink into you. Then there are great artistes here who make for great pramanis (conductors), so the music you get is of fantastic quality. Entire generations of people have grown up listening to it, so the bar is quite high.

How does the annual Arattupuzha Pooram at the Peruvanam temple become the centre of an entire performing art tradition?

Over 1.5 lakh devotees gather here every year to listen. And then consider the setting: the nadavazhi is a sunken space so it looks like an amphitheatre where 1,000 drummers play for 16 hours over an evening, night and the next morning. It creates a kind of acoustic marvel because the landscape ensures that different Melams don’t clash aurally.

It is interesting that elsewhere there are worries that the new generation is abandoning traditional arts but the chenda continues to be a favourite.

There is a great continuity to this tradition. There are multiple generations of people who know and understand Melam today. Children respond to rhythm very easily and quickly. They hear and absorb the pattern of the beats. Then if you like it enough, you pick up a stick and start to learn. If you acquire some proficiency, you can find a place in some Melam and play. If you want to join the top ranks, you work hard at it. There is no rigid hierarchy or system governing the process of learning and performing.

What is the next stage of the project?

I want to document the arts here, create an archive, record the masters at work. We will also put together a book on Melam, first in Malayalam and then in English. I also want to highlight the village and its great cultural settings, the nadavazhi, the homes, the fields, all of which are a part of Peruvanam’s cultural landscape.