Ten Malayalee’s and an elephant

A successful Malayalee, in my opinion, has either an inflated ego or is highly opinionated, and at times exhibits both characteristics. Can you imagine a situation where ten of them, well known to you, seasoned politicians, bureaucrats and people of high standing got together and accomplished something at the international scene? To hear this interesting account, I have to first take you back to the decade of the 1940’s. What on earth brought them all together? Now that is fine, but what is an elephant doing in their midst? An even more interesting aside….

1945 – The world was finally rejoicing as the terrible world war was over and the axis powers had been decimated by the allies. Life was slowly starting to limp back to normalcy but the people of Japan had an even steeper hill to climb. Douglas Mc Arthur, the allied supreme commander in Japan, otherwise known as Gaijin Shogun was on his ‘clean up and purge the old leadership’ mode. The Japanese bureaucracy was sullenly taking new orders, while the survivors or Hibaikusha were tottering about coping with the aftereffects of the nuclear bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. A few more bombs had been readied, but were mercifully not used, for Japan quickly surrendered. The once proud people now averted their eyes and refused to stare at fate.

Two years later India witnessed tragedy and triumph. It had become independent finally, freeing itself from the imperialist British yoke and Jawaharlal Nehru had become prime minister. Pakistan was created and the partition on the East and West borders brought suffering, tragedy and a multitude of deaths. Nehru wrestled with the arduous task of quietening the country and assimilating the many states, provinces and kingdoms of British India. In this he was helped by many an administrator from the south, and we have already talked about many of them, VK Krishna Menon, VP Menon, KM Panikkar and so on. There were other global challenges and with a nonaligned concept spearheading his actions, Nehru set about in right earnest.

He said in 1947 - We propose, as far as possible, to keep away from the power politics of groups, aligned against one another, which had led in the past to world wars and which may again lead to disasters on an even vaster scale. In 1951, he repeated - We have to try to understand others, just as we expect them to understand us. We cannot seek peace in the language of war or threats. But I guess, as Nehru himself realized, friends would soon become foes and violence continuously stood up and peeked through its hooded eyes at the meek public.

But now I take you to Japan, a period when the western world decried the actions of Japan as an axis power and the mauled country was subjected to many conditions, sometimes dishonorable, undignified and affecting its sovereignty. Many changes took place with large scale reconstruction starting around 1948 and a democratic constitution replaced the military influence and the rule of monarchy. The gaijin Shogun was firing away with reforms, and industries such as the bombed out Mitsubishi resurrected itself to rebuild the infrastructure. By 1949, MacArthur made changes to the power structure which increased the power of Japanese, and we see the occupation begin to draw to a close.

India’s relationship with Japan was slightly shaky, for it had been the supporter of INA which was at loggerheads with Nehru’s INC and the British. Subhash Chandra Bose was gone from the midst of the INA and Japan was still home to a few of the old INA stalwarts, one of them being NairSan or AM Nair. Japan was also home to some 750 businessmen from India, and a few students. Rama Rao was the first head of the Indian Liaison mission in Tokyo and quickly got on the wrong side of the imperial MacArthur who was already unhappy with India’s overtures to help a stricken Japan, instead of toeing behind the SCAP (supreme commander of allied powers). Rao quietly told him that India was no longer British but was an independent country. RB Pal and Govinda Menon came for the war trials, and made their mark with independent opinions. Nairsan watched and waited, and was involved often as an advisor or interpreter to some of these Indian officials (I had briefly introduced Nairsan earlier, but I promise, I will do a detailed article on him soon).

If I told you that this was the time when an elephant ambassador came to Japan, would you believe me? Well, this was exactly what happened. The Ueno zoo suffered after the war with a lack of feed for the animals and it became so bad that only people who brought in food got admission. Tonki an Indian elephant in the zoo had died tragically (three of them had to be killed off during the war – see article under references). By 1949, some animals were sent from Utah (many Japanese internees in the US were relocated to Utah and they mooted the transfer) to the depleted zoo. But they did not have an elephant, and the children of the Taito-ward, submitted a request to SCAP asking for an Asian elephant. The SCAP-GHQ which had to authorize the import, turned a blind eye. Soon a petition drive was launched and some 900-1500 kids wrote to Pt Nehru in India asking for an elephant. A reporter named Shimura collected these letters and gave them to a businessman Niyogi who knew Nehru and who was returning to India. With all this noise, the SCAP finally accorded import permission in July 1949. Nehru agreed to gift an elephant so long as Japan paid the $2,000 shipping cost. The elephant chosen was smart 15 year old with four toes (auspicious 8 symbols of Buddhism) on each foot and involved with timber logging (but well trained), from the hills of the Western Ghats. It was named Indira after Nehru’s daughter. By Sept 1949, she was on the way to Japan, though quite disgusted having to leave its abode.

Nehru wrote – “Indira is a fine elephant, very well-behaved. I hope that when the children of India and the children of Japan will grow up, they will serve not only their great countries, but also the cause of peace and cooperation all over Asia and the world. So you must look upon this elephant, Indira by name, as a messenger of affection and goodwill from the children of India. The elephant is a noble animal. It is wise and patient, strong and yet, gentle. I hope all of us will also develop these qualities.”

The elephant ambassador from India was on the way. Sugaya Kitsuichiro was sent to India to escort it to its new home and two Indian mahouts were to accompany it, but return after training the Japanese. The ship Encho Maru carrying it was hit by typhoons and rains, Indira was thoroughly seasick on the way. Special permission had been accorded for the ship to stop at Okinawa and collect fresh bananas and palm leaves for Indira. Life magazine captured the disembarkation at Japan, in pictures. Arriving at Yokohama on Sept 23rd, it was heralded as a reborn Tonki. 

In the meantime a Thai elephant Gachako had arrived, but when the majestic Indira stepped on Japanese shores, it blew away the breaths from the populace. The official presentation took place in Oct with the Japanese Prime Minister Yoshida Shigeru. Indira was a worker elephant, not a performer and the Zoo needed performances to keep the children amused. But Indira only listened to Kannada commands and the mahouts quickly set about training the trainers in Kannada language, and this took two months. And as they said in Japan, Indira fever had caught the populace…

By April 1950, the people of Japan wanted to see the pachyderm and so a travelling menagerie hit the roads. The demoralized villagers were seeing the majestic vegetarian beast with twinkling eyes from India, that distant abode of Buddha who had given them their religion and the well-known Bodhidharama. It is said that their spirits were restored, though I would take that report with a pinch of salt. Shimura the reporter who started it all was asked to accompany Indira. He was told ‘guard the elephant with your life, you can easily be replaced by many, but Indira can never be’. Indira was not amused with all the related activity and became very nervous, but was eventually calmed down after ingesting some sweets. In fact it turned out to be a terrible trip with the elephant being fed all kinds of rubbish food and it playing truant. Some 4 million people paid to see her and after this turbulent trip it was finally installed in the Ueno zoo.

The elephant was loved by everybody in Japan. Children who were starving brought sweet potatoes for Indira. They waved Japanese flags when she passed by. Indira on the other hand, must have dreamed of coconut trees and rice balls with sesame oil, her life in India, and of tuskers…….

Douglas Mcarthur, the man who smoked a Popeye style pipe, had in the meantime returned to America and Japan was quietly and efficiently rebuilding itself. The world decided to let the country back into the international fold and a big conference was arranged at San Francisco. Dulles was the architect of the new treaty. But India would have no part of it. Pt Nehru refused to attend the 1951 San Francisco peace conference. Minister Jayawardene of Ceylon attending the meeting, on the other hand went one step further and stated that it was important to be magnanimous to a defeated foe and refused to accept payment of any reparations that would harm Japan's economy and quoted a Buddhist teaching – ‘hatred ceases not by hatred but by love’.

India signed a separate Peace Treaty with Japan in 1952. This Pundit Nehru felt, gave to Japan a proper position of honor and equality among the community of free nations. In that Peace Treaty, India waived all reparation claims against Japan. Each country accorded the other the most favored nation status. This interestingly was a treaty cobbled up by the ten Malayalees and signed off at Japan by a Malayalee ambassador Mr KK Chettur. Unbelievable, right?

KK Chettur (father of Jaya Jaitley), a nephew of Sir C Sankaran Nair and a rising bureaucrat, arrived at Japan around the time Indira did, as the head of the mission and quickly took AM Nair into his confidence to meet many reticent Japanese bigwigs who were cowering under Macarthur’s blacklists and purges. He was keen on building direct relationships with the future leaders of Japan and formulating a path for the decades to follow. Yoshida Shigeru, the PM whom we met at Indira’s acceptance ceremony earlier, was a good friend. KK was kept in the know about the discussions between Dulles and Shigeru and seeing the contents of the treaty in advance, made him realize that India could not be a party to it. Nehru who was quickly prepped, agreed and India disagreed to sign it due to some clauses relating to a security pact, which Japan were forced to agree.

India signed a separate peace and amity treaty with Japan in 1952. The simple pact can be found under references and makes interesting reading. This carefully prepared treaty was drafted in Delhi by a decision making team of Nehru, set up for this purpose. Interestingly (per AM Nair’s reminiscences) it comprised KK Chettur the head of the Japanese mission, AM Nair (nairsan – advisor), NR Pillai ( Foreign secretary), KPS Menon (Foreign secretary), VK Krishna Menon (British HC and roving ambassador) , N Raghavan ( French ambassador), KM Panikkar (Chinese ambassador). Three others in Tokyo handling the rear end were KR Narayanan (later the president of India, somebody I had met), MS Nair (3rd secretary) and PS Parasuram (KK’s secretary).

If you know these people you will realize the high voltage situation. Each of them by himself was a handful and so if you put ten of them together, how could anything be worked out? Well, the ten gentlemen from Kerala indeed got together and worked it all out.

VC Trivedi, first secretary of the Japanese mission theorized that it worked out in the following fashion. Dulles had recruited 20 people in Delhi to lobby the US position and get India to sign up at San Francisco. Nehru decided to minimize costs and counter with half the number and selected them from the smallest state. But life is never simple, and Vijayalakshmi Pundit, Nehru’s sister (refer the second part of my Syud Hossain articles) was pushing for India to sign it and make it her big American success, as ambassador to the US. But Nehru vetoed it eventually and the ten Kerala gentlemen forged out the Japanese treaty. Even though India was suffering from the pangs of poverty and strife at that moment, it signed off any potential reparation from Japan.

Nehru followed up the delivery of the elephant in 1949, later with supply of steel for Japan’s rebuilding and Ceylon supplied much needed rice. India also offered to mediate between Japan and the Soviet bloc, while Japan transferred (1955-6) the iconic Pilot pen technology (famous since 1918) to India. Nehru also promised to consider sending a companion for Indira.

Whatever happened to Indira the elephant? It continued to be a star attraction at the Ueno zoo. We next hear about it when Nehru and Indira Gandhi visited Japan in 1957 and met the animal personally. It was the first thing he wanted to do after landing in Japan. In 1967, a young elephant Jumbo joined the zoo and it pushed Indira into a 9 foot deep moat after a brief quarrel. Indira clambered out over the spectator fence and became restless when a hovering news helicopter added to the noise of panicked spectators. Its old mahout Ochai Seigo lying in bed and dying of cancer was summoned as a last resort and he succeeded in calming Indira. Seigo went back to his hospital bed and died 10 days later.

But Indira had been traumatized by the above event and refused to lie down, to sleep ever after. For those who do not know, an elephant stops lying down when it realizes that it cannot get up from that position on its own. Her condition deteriorated and it even fell down while sleeping once, but stabilized. In 1972 a couple of giant pandas from China took over her star status and finally aged 49, Indira died in 1983. It had watched over Japan’s recovery for over three decades as a true ambassador of peace.

Addressing the departed friend, the Director of the Zoo said, “You came from a faraway country. It must have been so difficult for you to get used to this new country that became your home. And yet you brought cheer to so many, day after day, for so many years. You will never be forgotten. We pray for the peace of your soul.”

Lalitha Menon wife of KPS Menon wrote - In front of a beautifully decorated picture of Indira, everyone bowed, and maybe a tear was shed in memory of a truly dear friend. 

In 1995 Indira’s bones were reconstructed and you can see it at the natural history museum in Ueno. The ambassador of peace still looks on serenely as the children of Japan troop by.

Life went on, Japan rose to become a global giant, Nehru died soon after the China crisis, Krishna Menon was sidelined, while each of the other Kerala gentlemen did well as India forged on with its difficulties and amalgamated the states.

AM Nair became a businessman and his curry power was aptly named Indira curry powder after the Indian elephant, the very symbol of India. His detailed story is something I am currently studying and will come out as a separate article. He died in 1990, at the age of 85. He had lived in Japan for most of his life, known fondly as the Nairsan of Tokyo, purveyor of Indira Curry powder. I have not visited the Nair restaurant in Ginza Tokyo, but I hope to do so, someday.

Indira Gandhi hearing about Indira’s demise, was naturally upset and sent two more elephants to Japan in Sept 1984. A month later she was assassinated.

Nehru had said - The elephant is a noble animal. It is wise and patient, strong and yet, gentle. I hope all of us will also develop these qualities.

Did we become wise and patient? Are we strong yet gentle? You decide….

Japanese Wartime Zoo Policy: The Silent Victims of World War II Mayumi Itoh
An Indian freedom fighter in Japan - Memories of AM Nair – AM Nair
Starving the Elephants: The Slaughter of Animals in Wartime Tokyo’s Ueno Zoo Frederick S. Litten 

Courtesy Life Magazine – Oct 17th 1949, photo division (GOI), thanks to the many others who uploaded the other pics.

Sopana Sangeetham

The music tradition of Kerala – A performance for the gods

We talked about the movement of Carnatic music stalwarts and capitals, its development in Tanjore, and the part played by the Tanjavur quartet. We also looked at the contributions of the famous Shadkala Govinda Marar from Kerala. Now let us change tack and focus on a music form which was in vogue in Kerala, one that was slightly different from the Carnatic music that we covered so far. In the process we will also very briefly touch upon the language prevalent in Kerala in the medieval times, namely Manipravalam and get to know the marar community.

There is nobody who has done better research on this subject than Leela Omcherry and her daughter Deepti Omcherry. The history of music in Kerala is explained by them in such detail and anybody who is keen on the subject is advised to refer their works or listen to their lucid interviews. This article will only serve to be an introduction and is based very much on the fine and painstaking research by Deepti and her mother, augmented with finer details provided by others (referenced at the end of the article), so I start with my thanks to those fine teachers.

Like everywhere else, there was traditional music which refined itself to Jati (tribe, clan) or nadodi (folk) sangeetham. They were but naturally simplistic and based on a few notes or swaras. This was in colloquial languages prevalent in various regions and suited the performance, dance and worship forms of the period, at primate places of worship be it located in groves or caves. Sometimes this kind of music was termed Dravidian music. But it became something different in the precinct of the temples, though quite naturally evolving out of the Jati sangeetham (Pulluvan pattu, Kaniyan pattu, pana pattui, Thottam Pattu, Arjuna nrittam etc) which we mentioned above.

Kulashekara Varman of Malayalam as many of you know, was instrumental in the building of some of the first temples after the various Chola temples in the Tamilakam region. With the construction of the sopana mandapam and the koothambalam in Kerala temples, the forms of offerings, prayers and methods (aradhana sampradaya) were augmented with music and dance, both of which ended up as samarpanams or devotional submissions to the reigning deity in the temple.

But there is more to all this for in the old days, most Siva temples followed Tamil practices and the songs sung were Saiva thevaram or Tevaram pattu (KVK Guruvayoor pg42). The arrival of Jayadeva’s Ashtapathi in the 13th-14th century (which details the romantic life of Krishna) and its acceptance resulted in its eventual implementation as the quasi standard in temples, coinciding with the prevalent Bhakti movement. Perhaps it also fitted well with the Sanskritized Manipravalam development in early medieval Kerala and hence gained popularity over the Tevaram practice in Tamil. The development of the Sopanam style gained popularity and, by the 14th century, singers of the sopanam style contributed extensively to temple music. It was also the period when the Sanketham concept was in vogue where the temple and its authorities exercised a good amount of authority. A large number of temples in Kerala were virtually sovereign states (akin to the Vatican today) with a well-defined territory called the Sanketham. The rituals and methods of worship were also prescribed by the Sanketham authorities. The temple owned property, employed many personnel for its upkeep, and laid strict rules. It also decided who did what and which caste was ideal for what. Bigger temples had a hand in promotion of specific art forms, such as Ramanattam, Kathakali and so on.

Music for the gods followed bhakti traditions and were usually in Sanskrit (hence termed Arya bhasha) and when done at the sopnama or temple steps was called Kotti paadi seva (prayers with vocal singing and drumming). Obviously as it involved an individual enacting various events of an epic or legend concerning the particular god, the intonation presented but one singular bhava (mood) and used only swaras (notes) most suited for that performance. This limited repertoire remained constant with the passage of time for the simple reason that it was ritualistic and any change would in theory have upset the gods. So the strict outline of a jeeva swara with its related swaras to create a sopnana sthayam remained unaltered with the passage of time and thankfully we still see it in Kerala.  But it was not necessarily one which fitted with what is today known as the structured (sashtriya) music from the Carnatic melekarta scheme, and did have a few anya swaras (unrelated notes) creeping in but suiting the creation of a bhava or moving within it.

The vocalist thus stood to one side of the sopanam and sang devotional hymns to a set structure devoid of too many complications. Whether he did it solo to the accompaniment of the idakka or with an edakka player is subject to debate, but as it is to the accompaniment of kottal or drumming, it was also known as kottipaadiseva. Njeralath Harigovindan a present day exponent explains - This music form was intended to be sung for a short while, while the doors of the sanctum were shut and the deity was not visible.  The aim was to fill the ears of the worshippers standing in front of the doorway, with devotional songs so that their attention did not wander while their eyes had nothing to look at.

The style of singing is seen to be quite influenced by the old ragas or ‘panns’ which were commonplace in the Tamilakam (The term “Pan” is used to denote the term “raga” in Tamil isai). The ancient panns evolved first into a five note scale and later into the seven note Carnatic Sargam or Ezhisai. Today, you can see the usage of these paans only in Kerala’s unaltered versions of Sopana Sangeetham. As a temple performance, and one which depended on what time of the day prayers and poojas were done, it was intrinsically related to time and hence termed samaya sangeetham.

Examples of the ancient ragas used for Sopana saneetham are Desakshi, Sreekandi, Malabari, Banli, Samantha, Malahosvi, Goulipantu, Nalatha, Puraniru, Padi, Kanakkurinchi, Khandaram and so on. These ragas as mentioned, are typically sung to the time theory or Ganakala Niyama (certain ragas for certain periods of the day or night) which was also prevalent in Tamilian music. The Sopana style of singing is focused on devotional moods and has less of raga sancharas and sangathis.

As Sanketams dictated, orchestra during the puja became the exclusive right of the Marar (Poduval) community from North Malabar. Maaran (Maaraar, Maran) is the name given to temple musicians of Travancore, Cochin and Malabar in Kerala, and their primary duty was to provide the traditional temple Sopanam music. In parts of North Malabar they are known as Ochhans and Poduvals instead of Marar while in Travancore Panicker and Kurup are used. The higher classes of Maarans (Asupani Maarans) claim the six privileges Pani or Pano, Koni, Thirumuttom, Nadumuttam, Velichor and Poochor. Pani is the right to play the Asu and Pani. (In the Travancore regions they are called Chitikans (chaitaka)). Kerala’s temple music allows only certain talas and the ones preferred are Chempada (adi), Adanta (ata), Muriadanta(chapu) , Champa (jhampa) and panchari (rupaka).

A music enthusiast would always want a comparison and in general one can say that while the
scientific basis behind Sopnam and Carnatic are similar, the main difference is in the style of rendition. As it is sung near the steps or sopanam, it was called Sopanathil Pattu and is today broadly termed Sopana Sangeetham. Those items required for a public Carnatic performance such as aalapana, sangathis, brighas and so on are mostly absent in Sopanam. The focus instead is on gamakas and a slow tempo with long pauses to provide dramatic effect provides a classic example of bhava sangeetham. The stress is on the sahitya (textual poem) and generally does not exceed one sthayi in Octave range. Sruthi is still paramount, and tempo is kept with the chengila – a gong tapped with a wooden stick. It is also termed as an example of kalpitha sangeetham set to specific norms whereas Carnatic is more manodharma. The edakka, the main shruti-laya instrument of Sopanam, is incidentally tuned to pancham (Pa) and has a range of only one sthayi, with panchamam as its base.

But there is a different angle proposed by some experts, that it was a music meant for sobhana or dance, and that they were originally sung by devasris or singing girls of the temple. Dr Omchery opines that in the South it was sung originally by the padi ilars or the Tali nangas of Travancore. They were the kriyangis or wives of god who alone had the authority to perform before god, be it music or dance. Similar to the Nuns of Chritianity, they were secluded inside the temple precincts and appeared only for the pooja performance. The girls belonging to the highest level were offerings by the king from his family and were called Uttamottama and were hardly seen, and spent all their time in prayers in seclusion.

The melodious rendering of Ashtapadi in the traditional Sopana style can still be heard in places like the Guruvayur temple in Kerala, but what is it actually? Imagine ascending the steps or sopanam, i.e. the steps leading to the sreekovil in a Kerala temple. Sopanam music is like climbing the steps, slowly, step by step in a slow tempo (like vilambit laya in Hindustani). The glide is akin to slow sea waves and very rhythmic (andolita gamaka), but unique to Sopana singing with a focus on bhakti. As exponents explain, typically you begin with a graha swara, rotating in and out of laya in vilambita, using one or two swaras and then moving on to the next step using the swaying adolita gamaka. Strictly old margam tala (Carnatic is laya bound) bound, it reaches a climactic phase through differing singing speeds vary from patikaala to shatkaala without the steps becoming evident. Purists will also notice that sopnam exhibits two additional swaras and they are termed the kairali gandhari and kairali nishada. Even the Sa and pa are shaken. The drum accompaniment to Kerala’s sopnam singing is the idakka, a small drum shaped like Siva’s damaru.

Sopana Sangeetham actually underwent some compositional changes when the Geeta Govindam or Ashtapadi by Jayadeva reached Kerala. Jayadeva’s Ashtapadi in Sanskrit covering the tales of Krishna and Radha (eight stanzas) soon became a norm for Sopanam singers and it was also the music for temple dances such as Ashtapadi attam. This was the forerunner to Krishnattam (Krishnagiti - covering the whole life of Krishna) later formulated in the courts of Manavedan the Zamorin of Calicut. As it moved Southwards, Krishnattam developed into Ramanattam (See related article under references) and later to Kathakali where Sopnaa sangeetham continued to form the bedrock, but based on manipravalam. And slowly it left the temple and got associated with performing arts. Some works like shivashtapadi also found popularity in those days.

Tamil language was the original language of Tamilakam, but Grantha bhasha used by the nobility of Cheranaad was a mixture of Tamil with Sanskrit. Manipravalam was a mixture of Sanskrit and early Malayalam (the version popular in Kerala – more like Karin Tamil) and was more of a literary style used in medieval Kerala. For cultural purposes at that time, Malayalam and Sanskrit formed a language known as Manipravalam, where both languages were used in an alternating style, and Manipravalam slowly transitioned to what we know as modern Malayalam. It was as you can imagine popular for poetry and used by poets and writers.

Sopanam was the music to which medieval Travancore dancers performed, as Sopana sangeetham evolved to abhinaya sangeetha. And so as you can see, it formed the musical basis of the Kerala’s tauryatrika – sageetham, nrittam and natakam. As time passed by, it found a powerful patron in the form of Swathi Tirunal of Travancore who together with his uncle Iraviyamman Thampi created even more manipravalam based compositions, in the Sopanam style and also used it as a base for the Dasiyattam of Travancore as well as the revitalized art form which we all know as Kerala’s Mohiniyattam. Post Swati Thirunal, we see that some of his compositions were being reset or polished and represented in relatively modern Carnatic ragas and styles due to the efforts of Sethu Parvathi Bayi, Muthaiah Bhagavathar and Semmangudi Srinivasa Iyer.

Sugandhavalli Bayi and Nanditha Prabhu add that a style of Mohinyattam termed the Sopanam style was revived with Kavalam Narayan Panikkar’s efforts. As they put it, it was a retreat into Kerala’s own forgotten treasures which were latent in the ritual dance traditions. Panicker tried to re- look on the vāchika aspect of Mōhiniyāṭtam. Rendering of music in this tradition mainly tried to bring out the emotions and feelings through the eloquent pauses to stress on the lyrics. Kavalam Narayana Panicker advocated that this style of rendering would be more apt for Mōhiniyāṭtam rather than using Carnatic music which laid more stress on gamaka prayoga. In addition to the above, introduction of sopana sangeetham was more readily accepted by the dancers Kanak Rele of Bombay and Bharathi Sivaji of Delhi. They used this musical rendering in combination with their own definitions of Mōhiniyāṭtam (Angika aspect) which was well received by rasikas outside Kerala. This style developed a repertoire with items like Ganapathy, Mukhachalam, Tatvam, Niram, Padam and Jeeva. This was patterned as a journey of Jeevatma towards the Paramatma symbolically represented by a devotee’s journey from the entrance of the temple to the inner sanctum sanctorum. Today more dancers in Kerala are accepting this sopanam style.

The two styles Thekkan (south) and vadakkan (north) developed and the southern style virtually vanished. As days passed by, the vadakkan style started to get influenced by the populist Carnatic music. It is not an art taught in schools since Sopana sangeetham is traditionally taught by singers to boys of the next generation, so has few takers these days. While I was growing up, we used to have two great exponents Appu and Kunjukuttan, in Pallavur. The one name that is synonymous with Idakka and Sopana sangeetham is the legendary Pallavur AppuMarar—he was not only adept at using the edakka as a percussion drum, but also as a musical instrument.I can proudly say that I have been lucky to see many of his performances.

Nevertheless, there are a few Sopanam performers these days like Njeralath Harigovindan (Son of the great Rama Poduval), Sooranadu Harikumar, Ambalapuzha Vijayakumar and so on. We also have a lady singer of Sopanam these days, Girija Balakrishnan from Anamangad who plays her own edakka.

Mohiniyattam which utilized only Sopanam music is also evolving with faster Carnatic notes and we get to hear Sopanam only during daily performances in bigger temples. But perhaps that is where it always belonged, in the temple, as a performance only for gods….. And at the end of the day people will continue to ask – why did the people of Kerala always strive to be different, be it music, dance, language….well a tricky question, best answered another day.

So how does Sopana sangeetham, defined thus by Lakshmana Pillai as ‘simple, sweet, perhaps more languid, yet more pathetic and tender than the Aryan, and more sung in country parts than in towns’…. sound like? Click these links to hear some examples.


But the one that comes to the mind of most malayalee’s is that classic scene with Oduvil Unnikrishnan and his rendering of vande mukunda hare(Sung by MG Radhakrishnan) with an idakka accompaniment. 

My next article will focus on the temple dancers and a popular dance of Kerala – Mohiniyattam, the influence of Sopanam on it and many other related aspects

The Immortals of Indian Music – Ed Leela Omchery, Deepti Omchery Bhalla
Stylistic variations in Mohiniyattam – S Sugandhavalli Bayi and Nandita Prabhu
Contributions of Travancore to Carnatic music – Dr S Bhagyalekshmy
Madhurakala – Kerala theatrical arts – Dr Kanak Rele
Music in Travancore – RV Poduval
Kerala and Karnatic music – PN Krishnamoorthy
Music of the Sopanam – Brig RB Nayar
Mohiniyattam – A dance tradition of Kerala – Betty True Jones
Ritual music and Hindu rituals of Kerala – Rolf Killius
Vanishing temple arts- Deepti Omchery Bhalla
Music of Kerala - For a more detailed explanation please follow Leela Omchery’s explanation 
Role of Music in the temples of Northern Kerala – M Varma
Maddys Ramblings – From Krishnattam to Kathakali