By adding the subtle nuances while playing the percussion instrument Kalamandalam Kesava Poduval redefined the aesthetics of Chenda

In 2016, the octogenarian took a detailed trip to his native village he had left six decades ago. By this time, Kalamandalam Kesava Poduval was renowned more as a Kathakali percussionist than a tayambaka exponent.

The hilly surroundings of Anakkara in Palakkad district was where Poduval lived till 25, showing promise as a chenda artiste in the solo tayambaka concert steeped in classical Malamakkavu style. Along with his two brothers, there emerged a notable trio who were mentored by their father Kudalil Achutha Poduval. Then, in 1956, the youngster opted to play for Kathakali. And joined Kalamandalam, the dance-drama’s premier institution in Cheruthuruthy, 35 km east of his house near scenic Kumbidi.

There, under the illustrious Krishnankutty Poduval and Achunni Poduval, the youngster imbibed the nuances of chenda in adding to Kathakali’s theatrical value. Soon after his course, Kesava Poduval found a job in Muthappan Kaliyogam at upstate Parassini near Kannur. That stint (1961-63) ended ahead of an invitation from an institute south of Kochi.

Legion of disciples

Thus, in 1964, Poduval joined RLV College of Music and Fine Arts in Tripunithura. The 22-year service earned him not just a good line-up of students; the temple town helped Poduval prove his percussive skills and emerge as a fairly busy performer across Kerala.

His retirement from RLV in 1986 no way portended inaction. Poduval continued with his private tuitions, grooming talents into decent practitioners of Kathakali chenda, tayambaka and even melam—the festival ensemble spanning no less than three hours.

“Age was no bar. From children to the middle-aged, the master took each under his wings. Females were no taboo,” points out Gopikrishnan Thampuran, a frontline disciple of Poduval who died this month. “He won’t lose his poise with the below-par or lazy.”

Unruffled conduct and understated chenda-playing were the hallmarks of the maestro, who breathed his last on October 10, months short of turning 90. The cool head enabled him to maintain a twin career, though by the mid-1970s Poduval decided to virtually quit tayambaka and focus on Kathakali chenda.

“Old-timers say tayambaka’s loss ended up to be Kathakali’s gain,” recalls Gopikrishnan, who took Poduval to his ancestral land four years ago as part of a crew shooting a documentary on the master. The endeavour bore fruit

in early 2017 when NadaKesavam was released as a short movie at a function back in Tripunithura to honour Poduval, a winner of the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi award.

Author-scholar T S Madhavan Kutty notes a symbiotic relation between tayambaka and Kathakali chenda. “Trained Kathakali drummers tend to be poetic in their tayambaka,” he states. “In other words, Kathakali chenda can make your tayambaka suitably restrained.”

Trusted colleague

Poduval, essentially, was both. Never the outgoing type, his calm sweetness was evident in playing the chenda as well. Kathakali veteran Sadanam Krishnankutty says background percussion was safe and sturdy when Poduval led it. “Technically, we are from different schools. Yet, if it’s him on the chenda, we never discussed stage procedures in advance,” he says.

Incidentally, Krishnankutty kept insisting that Poduval must let his only son learn maddalam, the drum that plays complementary to the chenda in Kathakali. The proposal bore fruit: Kalamandalam Sasikumar not only gained name in his 30s, he teamed up with his father on Kathakali daises featuring the slow and fast choreographies.

Maddalam guru Gopikkuttan Nair, who turned out to be a colleague of Sasikumar at Kalamandalam, trails off the annual pilgrimages he undertook with Poduval to Sabarimala in the 1980s. “At the famed Ayyappa temple on Vishu days, we’d present Kathakali,” he says. The shows were invariably led by the iconic Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, who was also Poduval’s colleague at RLV.

Kathakali artiste Geetha Varma has similar memories about Poduval joining a troupe largely comprising females. “Inside the van and at the greenroom, he would be typically withdrawn. Behind the hand-held curtain, when I’d enter as the character and pay the ceremonial obeisance, he’d pat on my shoulder,” she says. “That was inspiring

Vocalist Kalamandalam Sreekumar recalls a 1996 journey upcountry. “In wintry Dehradun, we were to wear sweaters. Poduval wooed us into the age-old tradition of performing bare-chested,” he says. Chimes in musician Pathiyoor Sakarankutty: “Never will Poduval distract anyone on stage with his showmanship.” Top chenda artiste Kalamandalam Krishnadas concurs, adding, “No off-key note. So musical!”

Such assets existed even as a student at Kalamandalam, says Panjal Unnikrishnan, his contemporary at the institution. “Much elder to me, yes. So we’d take tips on chenda lessons from him,” he says. A couple of years later, I accompanied him at a tayambaka. Terrific!”

The master’s RLV-time pupil Kuttipuzha Balachandran reveals Poduval’s love for cinema posters. Adds Gopikrishnan: “Clock repair was a parallel interest.”

Poduval’s son Sasikumar met with a fatal road accident in 2010. That made the master reclusive. For chenda lovers, though, memories would resonate.

The writer is a keen follower of Kerala’s performing arts.

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