This unknown hamlet shot into the limelight because of the dexterous craftsmen who produced musical instruments used by maestros of Carnatic music and also consummate percussionists.

Keeping craft alive A Kerala village has been making maddalam mridangam for 200 yrsChecking the tonal quality of instruments.
Features Craft Monday, March 26, 2018 - 18:23

Taking a detour from the customary tourist itinerary I embarked on a trip to Peruvemba, located 15 km from Palakkad. As I reached this nondescript hamlet, the resounding beats of maddalam and mridangam rent the air. Peruvemba is renowned for its leather-based musical instruments that have entranced music lovers the world over since time immemorial.

This unknown hamlet shot into the limelight because of the dexterous craftsmen who produced musical instruments used by maestros of Carnatic music and also consummate percussionists. These craftsmen, who live and work in and around Peruvemba, have been crafting musical instruments for their livelihood for over two centuries and at the same time preserving this ancient craft. Renowned musicians from different parts of the country visit Peruvemba to procure their prized instruments made by the members of the Kollan community.

Barrel shaped block of wood is hollowed out in a machine.

My first stop was at the house of K Manikandan who hails from a family that has been in this business of making maddalams for the past three generations. Themaddalam, a vital instrument is used in Kerala’s dance drama Kathakali and traditional percussion orchestra panchavadyam. Weighing around 20 kg, the heavy instrument is hung around the waist of the person playing it. The player stands all the while to perform.

“The maddalam is made from the wood of jackfruit tree. It is a complex process that starts with the selection of wood. The wood is dried for a month and then chiseled in a machine to make it hollow,” says Manikandan.

A paste is smeared at the centre of the mridangam.

The skin of buffaloes and cows are bought from the abattoirs. We also paid a visit to a place which resembled a tannery. Here the skin of cattle are washed, stretched and pegged to small poles on the ground to be dried in sunlight for weeks and to be scrubbed and smoothened later. The skin, purchased from a nearby town, needs to be dried for more than 48 hours. Cow skin is used in chenda, goat skin in mridangam and the thin skin of the cow’s intestine for the face of the edakka.

Skin of buffalo washed, stretched and pegged to small poles on the ground to be dried in sunlight.

The skin are further chopped into lengthy piece and tied to both ends of the instrument. The makers tie the central segment of the instrument with a cow skin supported by a buffalo skin. The two pieces are cut to cover the mouth of the hollow log and the rest is cut into long strap-like pieces that are used to tighten the cover. This is a vigorous process where they put a lot of effort with their arms and legs to get the right tension of the instrument. It has two sides of leather with different sounds on each side. The leather covering of the maddalam having a wider aperture is made out of a paste of black stone, cooked rice and kunnikuri, a special seed. It is applied to the centre of the left membrane which gives it a powerful resonating bass sound. I watched him scrubbing buffalo skin while the other applied black paste on the leather covering one side of the maddalam and tapped to test the tone.

Skins are fastened to the mridangam.

While the cultural sphere of the state is vibrant with rhythmic ensembles and percussion artists, the traditional craftsmen who slog round the year to make the instruments ready for performance before every festival season, go unhonoured and unsung. The mammoth efforts of  instrument makers go unnoticed. Sadly, they do not make enough money to eke out a decent living. They are on the verge of extinction as there is no governmental support for them. Even the demand for pension for ailing artists has fallen on deaf ears.

A maddalam keept out to dry.

Another problem plaguing them is the frequent unseasonal showers which affect the drying of animal skin. This can adversely impact the tonal quality of the instruments’ lifespan. “Another serious concern is that earlier cattle were allowed to graze. Now they are bred in sheds and given cattle feed. Lack of movements and exercise lead to heavy fat deposits just like cholesterol in human beings,” says Manikandan.

Making of Maddalam work in progress.

Repair work of mridangam.

The skin of the cattle in Kerala normally has more fat content than that of those brought from other states. If there is more fat content on the skin of the cattle, it cannot be sun tanned easily and the tone of the instrument would be affected. There has been a scarcity of good quality cattle skin in the state after the Centre brought in some restrictions on the sale and slaughter of cattle.

Mridangams for sale.

The only saving grace is that to preserve this great traditional craft the Thukal Vadyopakarna Nirmana Sangam was formed in 2007 with 60 members from several families engaged in this instrument making craft. To save this traditional craft from extinction National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) has implemented a cluster development project in association with Vision India Charitable Trust to provide modern technical support and marketing of the products.

All photographs by Susheela Nair.

Susheela Nair is a Food, Travel, Lifestyle Writer and Photographer contributing content, articles and pictures on food, travel, lifestyle, photography, environment, and ecotourism to several reputed national publications. Her writings constitute a wide spectrum which also includes travel portals & guide books, brochures and coffee table books.

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