The months of April and May, when the temperatures soar and the country side is soaked daily in the brightest of sunlight, villages and small towns in the Malabar region (Northern parts) of Kerala reverberate to the exciting rhythms of various instruments. The colorful and musical festivals of Poorams are held during this period.
The pooram festivals are conducted with the local temple as the centre. The biggest and most colorful festival takes place at Vadakkumnathan temple in Thrissur and is called Thrissur Pooram. It happens during the Malayalam month of Medam (April/May). Another important festival not far from Thrissur is the Arattupuzha Pooram, which has around 60 elephants. This year the Arattupuzha pooram is being celebrated on April 11.
Arattupuzha is a village located near Puthukkad in Thrissur district of Kerala, in South India about 12 kilometres south of the town of Thrissur, the cultural capital of Kerala. It is located on the banks of the Karuvannur River. The temple at Arattupuzha is the central site of the annual Arattupuzha Pooram that stages the grand spectacle of scores of caparisoned elephants lined up in a row to the accompaniment of ethnic percussion concerts.
Thrissur pooram, the grandest spectacle of all has its beginnings during the reign of Sakthan Thampuran – one of the strongest rulers of the erstwhile kingdom of Kochi. He is said to have started the system of staging a grand pooram festival in repentance of having accidently beheaded an oracle (what is locally known as a velichappadu – one who acts as a spokesperson for the local deity).
Panchavadyam, a rhythmic orchestra, that may feature more than 100 artists, playing five (pancha) different kind of instruments, is one of the major ingredients of the Pooram festivals. The term panchavadyam literally means an orchestra of five instruments. It is basically a temple art form that has evolved in Kerala. Of the five instruments, four — timila, maddalam, ilathalam and idakka — belong to the percussion category, while the fifth, the kombu, is a wind instrument.
Much like any chenda melam, panchavadyam is characterized by a pyramid-like rhythmic structure with a constantly increasing tempo coupled with a proportional decrease in the number of beats in cycles. However, in contrast to a chenda melam, panchavadyam uses different instruments (though ilathalam and kompu are common to both), is not related very closely to any temple ritual and, most importantly, permits a lot of personal improvisation while filling up the rhythmic beats on the timila maddalam and idakka.
Panchavadyam bases itself on the 7-beat thripuda (also spelt thripuda) thaalam (taal) but amusingly sticks to the pattern of the eight-beat chempata thaalam — at least until its last parts. Its rhythmic structure calls for 896 beats in the first tempo and halves itself with each stage, making it 448 in the second, 224 in the third, 112 in the fourth and 56 in the fifth. After this, panchavadyam has a relatively loose second half with as many stages, the rhythm beats scaling down to 28, 14, 7, and so on!
Whether the panchavadyam was originally a feudal art or was it a rhthym ensemble that evolved out of the temple practices over a period of time is still a matter of debate among scholars. However, recorded history indicates that its elaborate form in vogue today came into existence in the 1930s.
This was primarily the brainchild of late maddalam artistes Venkichan Swami (Thiruvillwamala Venkateswara Iyer) and his disciple Madhava Warrier in association with late timila masters Annamanada Achutha Marar and Chengamanad Sekhara Kurup. They have been credited with evolving the pancha vadyam into a five-stage concert, using five time tempos and with an intelligent mixture of composed and improvised parts. Spanning about two hours, it has several phrases where each set of the instruments complement the others.
The panchavadyam and other rhythm ensemble of Kerala temples also have a pleasing appearance. In these art forms, the artistes line up in two oval-shaped halves, facing each other. However, unlike any classical chenda melam, panchavadyam seemingly gains pace in the early stages itself, thereby tending to sound more casual and breezy right from its start, beginning after three lengthy, stylised blows on the conch (shankhu).
A panchavadyam is anchored and led by the timila artist at the centre of his band of instrumentalists. Behind him the ilathalam players can be seen to be lined up. Opposite them stand the maddalam players in a row, and behind them are the kompu players. Idakka players, usually two, stand on both sides of the aisle separating the timila and maddalam line-up.
The maddalam and thimila are hide covered percussion instruments. The maddalam is played using both the hands, while the thimila is a more difficult instrument played on one side alone with the fingers and palms of both hands, the ilathalam is basically a set of metal shields that are clashed together in rhythmic sequences to mark the time and indicate the changes in tempo.
The Kompu is a wind instrument. However in the pancha vadyam the kompu also functions as a rhythm instrument using the same solfa syllables used by maddalam and thimilla artistes.