Master of the maddalam

Thrikkur Rajan, who passed away recently, was a stickler for conventional aesthetics

Midway through its opening sequence, Panchavadyam gives each maddalam drummer the opportunity to fill up certain slow-paced rhythmic cycles. This is when you might have seen a diminutive man in the centre come up with taps and rolls of distinct firmness. These passages seldom included improvisations. Often, they were sheer reiterations of classicism, yet refreshing for the crowd gathered around the 60-artiste ensemble. Thrikkur Rajan, barely 5 ft tall, looked a titan during those two-hour performances.

In a career spanning seven decades, Rajan saw generational shifts in the field, but the resulting change in tastes didn’t prompt him to weave novel patterns to please the audience. Nobody complained that he was repetitive. This reputation as a stickler for conventional aesthetics stayed with Rajan till his death at the age of 83 last week.

Temple festivals near and far from home kept the maestro busy from his teenage years. He was 15 when he debuted with the maddalam on a wooden stool. A small-time Keli concert he performed opposite a chenda player and a cymbalist heralded the emergence of a promising new talent from the semi-hilly Thrikkur. Elders had chosen the auspicious Shivaratri for the evening event at their neighbourhood rock shrine, 12 km southeast of Thrissur in central Kerala.

The cultural heritage of his native village contributed to his swift rise. By his mid-20s, Rajan was pretty well known in the circles of Panchavadyam — the finest platform for maddalam amid four other types of ethnic instruments. Not only did he perform across the Deccan, he was part of his team’s show at Moscow as part of the 1987 Apna Utsav hosted by the Soviet Union.

Rajan’s long musical journey came full circle at Thrikkur’s Mahadeva temple, where the octogenarian last joined a Panchavadyam in early 2020 ahead of the outbreak of the pandemic. His death on August 26 came a decade after he had won the State government’s Pallavur Puraskaram award (2011).

Rajan’s formative years were soaked in the timbre of the maddalam in which his father, Kizhiyedath Krishnankutty Marar, trained his students. The boy’s weak physique dealt a blow to his father’s hopes. At first, this dissuaded Marar from training Rajan in the 20-kg instrument that’s slung round the waist and played standing. Nonetheless, its sonorous notes tempted the child, who would sneak into the empty classroom and replicate the lessons he overheard. He had already learned the verbal syllables by heart.

Marar soon noticed his son’s talent. Not only did he initiate him into the maddalam, he also made him train under great-uncle Rama Marar for chenda and timila — the slender drum integral to Panchavadyam that builds on permutations of the seven-beat triputa.

As he began to make a name for himself, Rajan got a big break with the chance to substitute for the iconic Kolamangalath Narayanan Nair during the latter’s unexpected absence at the famed Nenmara Vela in Palakkad district. When he was 35, Rajan began his tryst with Thrissur Pooram, and went on to serve the festival’s Paramekkavu line-up for three decades. At 65, Rajan magnanimously made his junior Cherpulassery Sivan lead the maddalam. Sivan, who is known for his impromptu ideas, says, “Sometimes I try to play Rajan’s signature pieces. Only to fail! They are deceptively simple.” Sivan’s prime disciple, Sadanam Bharatharajan, says Rajan would encourage even the youngest of his fellow participants. “But if you tried to be over-smart, he’d give a moment’s stare. That was enough!”

Timila exponent Kariyannur Narayanan Namboodiri praises Rajan’s unique delineation of the triputa rounds towards the conclusion of Panchavadyam. “Obviously, they were well-rehearsed. Brilliant!” Thrikkur Saji, who plays the kombu trumpet, emphasises the clarity of Rajan’s taps. “They had a pearly quality. It was as if you could pick each roll from those fingers.”

Organiser Vinod Kandemkavil says Rajan was a flagbearer of the musical maddalam that Kolamangalath and Chalakudy Narayanan Nambisan enriched in Panchavadyam during the second half of the 20th century. “He never pursued arithmetical virtuosity. The stress was on a lilting progression of the symphony.”

Kodakara Ramesh, who heads the Kshethra Vadyakala Academy that teaches temple percussion arts, particularly values Rajan’s partnership with timila anchor Annamanada Parameswara Marar (1952-2019). “The momentum the duo’s synergy gave to Panchavadyam was exceptional,” he notes.

Once temple festivals resume , Panchavadyams will find it difficult to fill the slot that Rajan occupied for half a century.

The writer is a keen follower of Kerala’s performing arts.

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