Women in matrilineal Kerala have always enjoyed a certain high social status. And the arts reflect this in some ways. While the dance-theatre of Nangiarkoothu and the group dance of Thiruvathirakkali are the exclusive preserve of women, Brahmani Pattu is a genre of songs sung only by the women of the Nambissan community.
Brahmani Pattu is rendered mainly in temples and Namboodiri illams. Elaborate preparations precede a performance. Coconuts, betel leaves, arecanut and traditional lamps are arranged in a square formed by dried rice in front of a peedhom (pedestal). A ‘val-kannadi’, a symbol of Bhagavathy, adorned with a fan-like pleated cloth forming a halo, is placed on it. A tray containing select offerings is placed on an avanappalaka (traditional seat for rituals) that is kept in front of the pedestal. This offertory is called the mada.
The peedhom and the mada reflect the agro-social relevance of the ritual in the past. The Brahmani songs begin once prayers are offered to Ganapathy and Bhagavathy. In some temples, an interesting event takes place along with the singing — a couple of women pound a mixture of rice, jaggery, coconut, milk etc. that is kept in a large mortar and pestle (ural olakka). This representsthe celebration by Devi’s bhutas after her victory over Darika.
The performance extends sometimes to a whole day and the songs, employing not more than four swaras, are very similar to Vedic chanting in their simple musical structure. But the lyrical beauty of the compositions, mainly those of the renowned 16th century poet Mazhamangalam Narayanan Namboodiri, the modulation and diction make the performance captivating. The percussion accompaniment is given by striking a kinnam (brass vessel) with knife. Perhaps the practice was a harbinger to the evolution of the chengala (gong) that was to be employed in Kathakali later. But when staged in temples, percussion ensembles like the Panchavadyam accompany the music.
The art form is mainly confined to central Kerala, but the lack of patronage and non-availability of songs have pushed it to the verge of extinction. In 2003, Sree Pushpaka Seva Sangham took the initiative to collect nearly 60 songs and have them published under the title Brahmani Pattukal.
The efforts of octogenarian artiste Padmini Brahmani Amma of Irinjalakuda are worth mentioning. To revive the art form, she organised competitions for young girls.
In 2010, Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi honoured her with the Gurupooja Puraskaram.
The writer and culture critic is a trained musician.