Kerala’s northern district of Palakkad brings to mind scorching sun, mighty palms, lofty forts, the authentic aroma of the Iyer chamayal or even the district’s own Palakkaadan kaatu (wind). But Peruvemba, a nondescript but culturally rich village in the district, has for many years stayed out of what is 'quintessential' Palakkad.
Perhaps the most praise worthy of all, Palakkad’s Peruvemba village has been resonating with music of its own for more than 200 years now, often unheard and unsung!
The tiny hamlet, situated about 15 km from the main town, is home to skilled and proficient craftsmen engaged in the art of making percussion instruments mridangam, maddalam, chenda, tabla, timila and idakka. The village is sought after by the maestros of Carnatic music who come down to this tiny village all the way from Thanjavur and Chennai and many parts of the world to get their instruments made and fine-tuned.
The beats of the instuments are set to the pounds of the lives of the craftsmen here. The place is shorn of big shops or advertisements. But as you reach the village, endless classical notes ring out from tiny sheds adjacent to small houses. A typical craftsman's day begins from early in the morning in these sheds. They invoke goddess Saraswathy, the hindu deity of wisdom, music and art before starting work. They work and live here till its long past dusk.
For around 74 families in this profession, it is a godly and a unique skill passed down generations for two centuries.
A Mridangam is born!
Keeping intact a rare craft, the effort these men take to make instruments often go unperceived. R Rajan, a craftsman for the past 34 years, describes the many stages of making a Mridangam. "Be it a Mridangam, or a smaller in size Idaykka, the process is labour intensive. A single instrument has to go through multiple stages of production that requires hand work. The primary necessity of the percussion instrument is the animal hyde/skin which we obtain from the abattoir," he says.
The skin of cow, buffalo and female goat find use in making of a Mridangam. The skin collected is dipped in water for 2 days, removed of any hair and is left open in the bright sun to dry. Nails are used to fix the stretched parchment firm on the ground to air out.
The base drum is made using jackfruit wood (Artocarpus heterophyllus) , or Kanikonna (Cassia fistula). With the advent of machines, the carving out of the wood to make the base has become a bit easier. Earlier, the single piece wood had to be chiselled with hand, scooping out wood from the inside to make it hollow," he says.
The dried skin is the cut to length and attached to the ends of the drum, sealed and knotted to perfection using hands. The drums are balanced between the legs, and the outer straps made of buffalo skin are inserted through small slits round the sides of the mridangam. The strings are pulled and fastened tightly to set tension at all spots to create the perfect shruthi or the tone at all points. It is mesmerizing to listen to the music produced by the tightened skin on the wooden drum.
An even more difficult task demanding precision is creating the black circular ring that you spot on the centre of the mridangam sides and the tabla. The process of making them is called 'mashiyidal' and it is a time-consuming task. The black powder is obtained from a stone called puranakallu, rich in iron. These stones are available in plenty in Peruvemba and is mostly taken from temple ponds.
The stone is grinded using a mortar and is powdered to perfection using a grinding stone. The powder is then mixed with boiled rice, kneaded well to a paste and is smeared on the mridangam head with utmost care and diligence. More coats of the puranakallu mixture is added for low pitched mridangams, and its applied less thick for higher tones.
It is strange that the men of the land do not sell mridangams or any other instruments commercially nor they give it to shops outside. For them, making an instrument is a traditional occupation, divine in all forms. A Mridangam would cost around Rs 16,000; Maddalam Rs 22,000; Chenda Rs 18,000-22,000; Idakka Rs 12,000; Tabla and Timila Rs 6,000.
“The instruments from Peruvambu can only be bought on pre- order. We engage in the production of the instruments only as per orders received. We further make and customize the instruments according to the customer's wish,” Rajan says.
P R Kasumani, who runs a shop near Peruvemba Mariyamman temple is a master crafter of Mridangams. His workplace is a large shed adjacent his house where numerous craftsmen work. While only men work on Mridangams, the women folk helps clean the animal skin and grind the puranakallu, he says.
The unheard voice
Even though Peruvemba's contribution to the cultural scape of Kerala is remarkable and that a major share of Kerala's instruments are produced here, often the effort these men take go unrecognized.
The festival season guarantees solid work to these men, while the off-season is a tough time. Frequent unseasonal showers also make drying the skin difficult. Rains also alter the instruments set shruti. The recent restrictions on cattle slaughter too posed threat to the craft.
The strenuous manual work for years often robs them of their vigour and health, forcing them to leave the trade after a point, putting their livelihood in question. Their only resort at present is a self-help group called the Thukal Vadyopakarana Nirmana Sangham formed in 2007, comprising around 60 families. The National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), in association with Vision India Charitable Trust, has also collaborated to render modern technological support to them.
Rajesh, son of Kasumani and a Kalamandalam postgraduate in Mridangam, says that the government should frame policies keeping in mind the needs of these artists. A smal pension should be ensured, he adds.
Whatever the tales of hardships be, the artists from the the land is never ready to let go of the tradition. It is proudly passed down generations, and even the new generation starts learning the craft from a very small age. Kasumani's mother Kazhaki, who is around 92, proudly say that her husband taught her the art of making these instruments. “I will continue helping my sons as long as I can, for this is all I know and this keeps me happy," she says.