Tradition and Innovation: Thayambaka – Kalamandalam Balaraman

In recent years, what changes have come about through innovations in the Thayambaka tradition? Do these changes lead to a loss of the tradition’s uniqueness in the context of the evolving scenario, or do they contribute to its aesthetic growth?

Changes in Thayambaka have come about over time, primarily in its presentation. However, the fundamental structure remains unchanged. In the past, major focus was on the structure and the rhythm and tempo presentation that starts from slow pace to the high Thayambaka’s structure itself, can be matched with a temple gopuram (tower). Each cycle of beats, the connecting technique between two Talas were the point of attention, Today, there is less emphasis on such aspects, however performers highlights their improvisations.

Modern connoisseurs often demand the speed and a faster tempo, and there is a tendency to rush through time signatures. Attention to detail has decreased. What was once a measured presentation is now hurried, and the finer nuances of the tradition are sometimes overlooked. The structure that used to start with eight-letter cycles has now transitioned to nine-letter cycles. Each ‘kaalam’ is known to start and end differently in this regard, which makes it difficult to identify the ‘kaalam’. Nevertheless, the basic structure remains consistent.

What are the innovations implemented to Thayambaka as your personal effort? Do you think still there are areas in the art form still remain unchanged and need to be modified?

Most of my contemporaries did not continue with Thayambaka; instead, they turned to Melam or Kathakali. I had a special interest in Thayambaka and focused on it. Also, my continuous and long-term experience in Kathakali influenced my approach, focusing on the musical aspects of Thayambaka. While adhering to the conventional style, I attempted to introduce ‘Laya’ through the rhythms. Laya does not automatically generate with the exact usage of Thala. It occurs only with the extreme concentration of the performer, and his experience also plays a significant role in this context. Here, we are not creating something entirely new, which is not necessary at all, I would say. Instead, we can use improvisation within the framework of a particular thala, and that’s where the magic of the art happens.

In Melam, I recently tried on a different kind of experimentation. This experiment involved complex rhythm patterns based on the ‘Navavarana’ of Sreechankra. Each ‘Aavarana’ was presented with a rhythm pattern that matched the number of ‘Aksharaakaala’. In the Melam format, a group of 27 artists played nine ‘Aavarana’ performed in three tempos. However, such experiments are not feasible in Thayambaka.

One aspect that requires alteration is the tendency to overly amplify the performance. This leads to an unsystematic presentation, which is detrimental to the art form. It is crucial that future generations are exposed to the authentic essence of the art. This is how it will thrive and evolve over generations.

Do connoisseurs accept change or do they still prefer the old? How many takers have you seen who welcome change or still hold on to tradition?

True connoisseurs of the art have always existed throughout history. In today’s era, there is a growing demand for faster-paced performances, but there are still individuals who deeply value the traditional approach. Even now, there are those who believe that preserving the traditional structure should be the primary focus. Some even insist on a single Thayambaka performance, despite the prevalence of the ‘Pancha Thayambaka’ format.

Similarly, there remains a group of enthusiasts who fondly remember veteran percussionists like Aaliparambu Shivarama Poduval and Achunni Poduval, and they continue to embrace the conventional system. Simultaneously, a new audience segment seeks the faster versions of Thayambaka. Ultimately, it comes down to individual taste. However, there are instances where it’s not feasible to cater to every demand, such as when some people request an abrupt transition to a higher tempo without a proper conclusion of the lower tempo. In such cases, I choose to disregard these preferences, although I generally respect and appreciate my audience and their diverse tastes.

Who were the senior generation artists who inspired you, and how do you look into younger generation as guru and mentor?

I had initially intended to enroll in Kathakali Vesham at Kalamandalam. However, due to either misfortune or fortune, I ended up gaining admission for Chenda instead. My guru at the time was Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Poduval Ashan, who served as my guide and mentor. Upon completing the course, I had the opportunity to work with the Darpana Academy in Ahmedabad. Upon returning to Kerala, I found myself somewhat distant from the field, especially in the realm of Kathakali.

Subsequently, I entered to the training in Panchavadyam Thimila. These experiences may have left an imprint on my approach to performance. Nevertheless, Krishnankutty Poduval was my sole mentor in Chenda. While artists like Shivarama Poduval, Achunni Poduval (though I couldn’t isten to his performance directly) served as a constant source of inspiration, their influence on my work was not direct.

The younger generation is curious about introducing experimentation into this art form. However, in the domain of percussion, we have limitations when it comes to making changes. The primary avenue for innovation lies in the realm of Manodharmam. Achieving this requires unwavering dedication to training, as well as a continuous commitment to listening and appreciation.

As a person who engages similarly in both Kathakali and Thayambaka, did your experience in Kathakali help you gain control over your Thayambaka performance?

Certainly, the primary influence has been from Kathakali for me. It is through Kathakali that I have gained most of my knowledge. As I mentioned earlier, the familiarity with the characters, the intonation of words, the essence of silence, and the nuances of expression all helped me enhance my Thayambaka performances. It’s the understanding of the narrative within the rhythms, the grasping of emotions through the beats, the interplay of words and silence, and the use of sound that makes Kathakali and Thayambaka closely related in my artistic journey.

For Thayambaka, one must stand firmly within the talam (rhythmic cycles). Not only that, but it should also sound pleasing to the listeners. In this aspect, Kathakali provides a deep understanding of layam. It’s the layam that forms the foundation of Thayambaka, and Kathakali has been instrumental in my understanding of it. The intricate rhythms, the variations in tempo, and the combination of sound and silence are all aspects that I believe Kathakali helped me to excel in.                                                                                                                                                                                                                      

As you mentioned there are connoisseurs who appreciate double, triple and Pancha Thayambaka versions. Similarly, there is a trend in that Chenda replaces with other percussions. How do you perceive these changes?

These trends indicate that there is an audience for Thayambaka, which is truly a positive development. However, it’s important to recognize that the Thayambaka system is fundamentally designed for the Chenda, and it operates within the framework of Chenda percussion, having its unique grammar. Therefore, when we incorporate other instruments, there is a chance of deviating from the established system, which is quite natural.

There is a growing acceptance of triple and Pancha Thayambaka systems, driven by the tremendous enthusiasm towards speed higher tempo. In this context, it’s crucial for artists to maintain their focus even when performing in front of a large audience. They should be aware that its not a competition and contribute to a harmonious listening experience for the audience. It should not be seen as a competition but rather as an opportunity to collaborate and create an enjoyable listening experience.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *