ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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The Power of Drumming

Shinkari melam troupes in Kerala are symbols of Dalit assertion.

Temple festivals in Kerala are a meeting ground for diverse artistic expressions, including chenda melam, a majestic orchestration of traditional temple musical instruments. Hours-long performances of different genres of classical chenda melam like panchavadyam, thayambaka, and panchari melam enthral connoisseurs with brilliance and sophistication. It is performed by hundreds of artists both inside and outside the temple, and some of them are now among the world’s largest orchestrated performances. Even though the supremacy of classical melam is undoubted, a new form of melam performance called shinkari melam is gaining greater momentum among the common populace in recent years. Focused more on entertainment, it uses chenda (percussion instrument) and elathalam (hand cymbals) to create an energetic and enjoyable symphony of rhythms. It is widely popular in the central part of Kerala and performed mainly by Dalit artists.

Chenda has traditionally been considered a temple musical instrument and has been associated with the upper-caste Marar and Poduval communities. It was inaccessible to other castes for a long period of time. The learning and performing of chenda by other caste groups, especially Dalits, is a comparatively recent development. Dalit artists, even after excelling in percussion and performing in thousands of venues, are not allowed to perform with upper-caste artists in prominent temple festivals. There have been instances where veteran percussionists like Kadavallur Thami, Peringode Chandran, and Madavakkara Appukuttan have been kept away from major melams because they are Dalits. In this context, the Dalit community’s assertion by playing the chenda in the shinkari melam format could be considered as the making of a counterculture where they carve a unique space for themselves. It must be recognised as cultural resistance and the making of a counter-hegemony in a popular format.

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