ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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The Power of Drumming

Mythri P U (mythriunni@gmail.com) teaches at the Department of History, School of Distance Education, University of Calicut.

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.

Most small and medium temple festival committees in Kerala invite shinkari melam troupes to mark the festivities. Even church festival processions, once dominated by Western-style bands, have been largely replaced by shinkari melam. It is performed by a group of 24 mostly young people, wearing traditional white dhotis with a single colour border. This border colour also becomes the team’s signature colour. There are nearly a hundred such teams and some of them have a huge following. The festival season witnesses billboards on the roadside with team members’ and star performers’ photos. They also put on colourful crowns with feathers, balloons, goggles, and garlands to give their performances that extra something. The recital pattern is entirely different from that of the other melam performances. In classical melams, artists perform with technical precision and discipline without any notable body movements as it is a liturgical practice. Connoisseurs also enjoy and count the rhythm by raising their hands in a restrained manner. Contrary to this, the shinkari melam artist plays instruments with vigorous energy and folksy body movements even as onlookers dance along with the artists.

In the processional ensemble, these artists communicate with the audience too. Sometimes, they sit on the floor, jump with the chenda, move quickly, as their hands strike with machine-like precision against the instruments. A vast majority of the shinkari melam artists come from marginalised castes and classes. Nearly all of them perform manual labour during the “off season.”

Shinkari melam has grown to become an inevitable part of celebrations like religious festivals, inaugural functions, election processions, annual celebrations, and stage shows over the last few decades. But, this new genre has not been recognised as an “authentic performance” because of many reasons. Doubts about its artistic quality and the absence of codified rules are cited as major reasons. The lack of complicated classical elements is referred to as another major drawback. The so-called melam connoisseurs evaluate shinkari melam on the basis of classical melams and point out that it provides only instantaneous thrill. Classical melam followers emphasise that shinkari melam is not a structured art form and does not need years-long disciplined and dedicated practice. As it does not have a long established form of style, artists compose items as a group without a guru. They experiment with current musical trends.

The Dalit community’s own musical influences are clearly visible in the shinkari melam. The music is loud, the body movements of the artists are not restricted, and the performance is largely for entertainment instead of worship. The rhythms associated with Dalit musical instruments like thappu and parai are skilfully experimented with on the chenda. In temple festival processions, one can see a large crowd around shinkari melam groups. Sometimes the shinkari melam troupes lead the festival procession, and are followed by other ritual artists. But, shinkari melams are strictly banned inside the temple. They end their performance in the temple’s open grounds as they are not considered pure or divine. Shinkari melam artists are also treated as if they are second-grade artists and cannot find a place among the leading percussion artists.

Shinkari melam’s sociocultural relevance lies in the fact that it has beautifully and creatively asserted its place in an art form “reserved” only for the upper castes. Now, a group of people once restricted from playing the instrument are performing in a place where their presence is considered impure. This art has redefined the traditional ensemble, by removing the rift between performers and listeners. It may not be a “fine art” for many, but shinkari melam continues to win hearts and attracts large crowds. The beauty and politics of this art form lies in its simplicity and social inclusiveness. To a large extent, it has democratised and extended the possibilities of chenda, and has made it more attractive to anyone who wishes to learn and perform the instrument.

 

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