Tradition and Innovation: Thayambaka – Udayan Namboothiri

In recent years, what changes have come about in the world of art in Thayambaka? How have these changes affected the personality of the art form as it continues in the current context? Have these changes led to the enhancement of beauty in Thayambaka, or have they altered it in any way?

Changes have occurred in the world of art over the years, and Thayambaka has not been an exception; it has also evolved. Thayambaka’s beauty lies in its intricate patterns and the precise timing of its rhythms. In earlier times, Thayambaka was structured in such a way starting from the slower pace and a gradual and measured move to high pace. Today, it has evolved to include faster and more intricate patterns, often performed at a frenetic pace.

In the past, it was characterized by a slower tempo, with artists starting from a resting position and gradually building up the rhythms, often played with two hands from one side of the instrument. This created a sense of anticipation for the audience as they watched the virtuosity unfold. Today, Thayambaka has evolved to be faster, with artists playing from both hands almost simultaneously, creating a more intense and lively performance. This change in tempo has not compromised the art form’s beauty; it has merely adapted to the current context.

In Thayambaka, two primary styles have historically existed: the Malamakkavu style and the Palakkadan style. Those who followed Malamakkavu style played panchari and chemba after Chempata Vattam, incorporating intricate rhythm works. While the practitioners of the Palakkadan style favored Adanthakooru and played Adantha soon after Pathikalam. This style tends to have a more musical influence, possibly due to the strong musical tradition in the Palakkad region. Today, these stylistic differences are not much distinct, as Thayambaka artists often integrate the best elements from both styles. I believe my Guru, Mattannur Shankaran Kutty Ashan, was among the first to do this. His experience working with experts from both styles likely influenced him to accept various aspects of these different styles.

However, Thayambaka still maintains its unique timing. If one were to listen to recordings of Thayambaka from a few decades ago, they might notice that some of the complex rhythms and techniques are not heared. This is because Thayambaka artists have consciously made efforts to attract the new audience, as they have changed the certain timings, other than that not many changes have brought in. Striking a balance between preserving tradition and adapting to the evolving context is essential.

The possibilities are more extensive now, and Thayambaka can be enriched in various ways. While some may argue that it has deviated from its roots, it has also opened up opportunities for innovation and experimentation. Thayambaka has the potential to blend the best of both worlds, combining the traditional elements that define its beauty with the possibilities offered by the present context.

What were the changes and reforms that occurred as part of your contribution? How are different traditions continuing without major changes in this art form?

I have always followed the style put forward by my Guru, as I mentioned earlier. Something that I experimented was the creation of “Sreekaram Kooru.” It was performed in two venues and for the third time, presented for Ashan’s Shashtipoorthi (60th birthday).

Usually, I used to refrain from performing the experiments myself. The first attempt was made by my disciple Dinesh. It was tried in the ‘Madhyamakalam’. The Aksharakaalam is resembles with Roopaka Thalam. It was well-received among connoisseurs and there were opinions to try with slower pace/ pathi kaalam. Later on, we took it further,tried as double Thayambaka, and then single.

The uniqueness lies in presenting a rhythm pattern that cannot be easily reproduced. It’s about playing with numbers in a different way. To appreciate this, one must understand the rhythm without merely following it blindly. These days there is trend just to follow the speed, without giving a clarity in each ‘kaalam’ just create the loudness. This practice should change.

Do connoisseurs seek change and new experiences, or do they prefer the familiar and traditional pattern? To what extent you have followed connoisure preferences?

The art should be enjoyable, first to the artiste and then to the rasikas. We the performers should savour it to the fullest, and then we should consider the audience taste.

Many connoisseurs, sometimes want to hear the old face. Today, they want variety, they say. At the same time some want to taste old recipes for a change. Others say that they want a mixture of old and new. Usually Thayambaka audience are different from the crowd that gather for Melam in a Pooram festival. This has a core group who enjoys each aspects, we have to satisfy this team. Some people who only wait for the speedy plays, should be elevated to the level of a good rasika, that’s the duty of an artiste, as I believe.

Have your experiences with Kathakali playback and other forms such as Melam and Panchavadyam directly influenced your Thayambaka performances?

If my Thayambaka performance is pleasing, its only because of my experience in kathakali play back. It is closely associated with the music. To make subtle moves, which is usually difficult in chenda, but I could do it because of my Kathakali experience. It adds musical effect to the rythms I understand.

Melam is a play with the repetation of rythms and speed. It’s beauty lies in the loudness created together. In Panchavadyam the coordination of each percussion is important. So the scope for improvisation is more in Thayambaka.

If an artist wants to excel, along with rigorous practice, what other elements should they pay attention to? What is your opinion on the role of a guru in this context?

Not everyone can excel in the field of performing arts. The first step is to practice tirelessly. A 45-minute long Thayampaka (traditional percussion performance) must be mastered. This requires dedicated effort in numerous practice sessions. Achieving proficiency in each of the three or four stages of rythm is crucial for an artist to truly shine. Exploring various possibilities and experimenting with techniques is also essential. This systematic growth is vital for artists. However, formal training is not the only thing that matters. It’s equally important for artists to develop a deep understanding of their chosen art form.

The role of a guru, or a mentor, is invaluable in this context. They guide artists not only in perfecting their skills but also in understanding the essence and intricacies of their art. A guru helps in channeling an artist’s passion and creativity in the right direction. They provide valuable insights, corrections, and encouragement throughout the learning journey.

As I have transitioned from being a connoisseur to a practitioner, I have come to appreciate the importance of formal training and the guidance of a mentor. It’s not just about learning to perform but also about gaining a profound understanding of the art form, its history, and its cultural significance. A guru’s role is indispensable in nurturing and honing an artist’s talent, making them an integral part of the artist’s journey toward excellence.

Today, there is a noticeable demand for double, triple, and Pancha Thayambaka performances, with other percussion instruments also being incorporated into Thayambaka. What are your thoughts on these trends, and how do you believe the ‘chenda’ remains unique in Thayambaka?

If I were merely an audience member, I might prefer single and double Thayambaka performances. However, as a performer, I must to some extent adapt to the new demands and trends. Double Thayambaka offers more room for improvisation. As for the inclusion of other percussion instruments, it represents a novel trend, and Thayambaka serves as the foundational structure upon which these other instruments can be incorporated. Nonetheless, the unique sound produced by the ‘chenda,’ for which this structure was originally designed, remains distinctive. Nevertheless, it’s essential to preserve the structure and its inherent beauty.

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