The sound of Chenda

Thrissur Pooram

Last year when we had visited Rivas’s house in Thrissur, his dad had spoken very highly about the “Thrissur Pooram”. He had talked about how during the Pooram, a lot of chenda (a kind of drum) players would play together to hypnotic effect. From what he described, it seemed to be a kind of thing that I would very much like to attend.

This year I was surfing for some information about Pushkar, when I came across an article mentioning the Thrissur Pooram. I immediately called up Rivas and he told me that it was due on the 24th of April. It being a Saturday and nothing major planned, Thrissur Pooram was on :)(along with some very delicious beef cooked by Rivas’s mom which should never missed).During Thrissur Pooram various nearby temples bring processions to the  Vadakkunnathan temple to pay their homage. Of these temples, the two major “heavy weights” are Paramekkavu and Thiruvambadi.

As I wanted to enjoy the pooram in its fullest, so I decided to arrive a day earlier to catch some panchvadyam( panch=five  vadyam=musical instrument) practice sessions.

So on the 22nd of April, I came to Yeshwanthpur station to catch the Kochuveli Garib Rath only to be informed that because of some derailments, the train will start 9hrs late and will only reach Thrissur by Friday evening( So much for seeing some panchvadyam practiceL).The train journey was uneventful and I reached Rivas’s home around evening. Thrissur was HOOT. In the 2days I spent there, I had about 10 baths (not counting the sweat baths) and I am not such a bath person. That evening I went to the Vadakkunnathan temple grounds (the pooram grounds) for the Thrissur Pooram exhibition which was most unimpressive. Apparently, near the pooram grounds there is a display of the ornaments that the elephants adorn during the pooram, but I could not find out exactly where it was happening.

The next day(the pooram day), uncle dropped me at the pooram grounds. The crowd was slowly gathering. Inside the temple there were small groups of musicians and elephants. By 9AM, the bigger groups started appearing at the temple, the crowd started swelling and the heat increasing. The sound of the chenda was slowly starting to hit me and the sound quality was much better than I expected. There was a raw intensity to the sound that the chenda produced. They would play loops of rhythms slowly increasing the tempo. The huge crowd around the ensemble(which included the musicians and the elephants) of players would continually keep throwing their hands in the air to the beat of the music. The group would slowly move forward towards the temple at regular intervals after playing at one spot. A groups “performance” would culminate as they reach they reach the temple gate.

Among the chenda players there are two sets of players: one that would hold the rhythm and the other that would play the intricacies of the raga. The chenda player strikes the chenda in a fluid , apparently effortless, motion to produce this awesome sound.

This sequence of events continued and about 12:30 I thought I would check out the interior of the temple. If I did not find anything interesting, I would go home and come back in the evening. Till now what I had heard and seen at the pooram had impressed me a lot but little did I know that what I was about to witness was going to blow me away.

The Chenda Players

As I entered the temple, I saw a small enclosure around which people were standing and the television guys had set up their cameras. On enquiring I was told that there is going to be another panchvadyam performance at around 2PM.With panchavadyam performance happening all around, I was a little puzzled that people were queuing up more than 1.5 hours before the show was about to start. Anyways, I decided to hang around. This enclosure had small temples on two of its sides which created small passages where people would stand. At around 2PM, the musicians started trickling in. By the time they started playing, there were about 100 odd musicians in that small enclosure. This is known as the Elanjitaramelam or the melam around the Elanji tree. As for the crowd, they were packed tighter than sardines in those small passages. I was pasted against the barricade and for the next 2 ½ hours I could not even see my own feet.

As they started playing, you realized that somehow this one is different. For the first 30 minutes, it was like “this is good”. As time progresses, you start getting hypnotized by the music. Slowly as they increase the tempo you actually feel the “thud” of the chenda passing through you. For the next couple of hours, it was an absolute out of the world experience. The sound of the panchavadyam, the heat, the enclosed space and the crowd all added to the atmosphere. For once, it just couldn’t get hot enough. The bare caramel bodies of the panchavadyam players drenched in sweat was a sight to behold. The panchvadyam players ensemble was an animal unto itself showing off against the elephants and it really had to elephants as any other animal would not have been able to hold its ground.

The Thrissur pooram is not really an advertisement for the ethical treatment of animals. The elephants are in a sad state. Their legs are chained; they have to take the heat and are under an incredible amount of STRESS. This year during the Elanjitaramelam , a elephant while maneuvering had a pretty bad fall. A fall can cause serious injuries to an elephant and shorten its life. The elephants undoubtedly are one of the saddest sights of Thrissur pooram.

Both Man and animal:Chained

The Elanjitaramelam ended around 4:30PM. The next big program scheduled for the day was the umbrella changing ceremony. In this ceremony, two sets of elephants belonging to Paramekkavu and Thiruvambadi stand face to face with a sea of people standing in between them. At regular intervals, the groups keep changing the umbrellas held on top of the elephants. Each group tries to outdo the other as to how spectacular the umbrellas can be. This cycle of umbrella changing continues for more than an hour. As I was moving around in the sea of people trying to find a suitable place, I came across a 3 storey high bamboo platform erected for photographers. Anyone with a DSLR was allowed to go up to the platform. This was my lucky break. As with all bamboo structures, it shakes a lot and the initial 15 minutes I was pretty scared that the structure would fall. The platform provided great views of the whole ceremony and had it not been for this chance discovery, I would not have been able to appreciate the huge size of the crowd at the pooram grounds. This had been an awesome day but I regret having missed the fireworks show that happens late in the night as I was too tired to come back to the pooram grounds.
Sea of people

Next day morning, I went to the temple again. Today was supposed to be Thrissur’s own personal celebration and was a low key affair. As I reached the temple, I was delighted to find out that the same ensemble that played yesterday at the Elanjitaramelam was playing again , this time outside the temple. The crowd was considerably less and I got to shoot the chenda players from within the group. The sound of the panchavadyam was “as usual” mesmerizing. Post lunch, I lazed around in the house only to finish with a flurry when at 7PM I found out that my bus was at 7:15PM and not at 7:45PM as I had previously assumed. Luckily I had finished packing and although I had to skip the delicious dinner that aunty had prepared. Uncle’s driving skills and a bit of luck ensured that I was onboard the bus with time to spare.

Thrissur Pooram was the first mega south Indian festivity that I had attended and the sights and sounds had absolutely dazzled me. Before coming to the pooram, I had imagined a lot about the ambience that would be created when so many artists perform with their powerful instruments all at once. But never had I imagined that it would be so grand. It was only apt that I was partially deaf for about a week after the pooram, because after I had heard the chenda play I didn’t want to hear anything else.


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Bitten by the wanderlust bug.

One thought on “The sound of Chenda”

  1. Nice one Joy!!
    Did you try and record any video of this Chenda performance? Most of the DSLR’s can record some video too…it would have been really awesome to have been able to at least get some experience of what it was like.
    I was developing some interest in West African folk music…esp. drums. I got to practice with some djembe and kinkini players here, but the group seems to have kind of disintegrated over past few months. Amazingly the beats that are staple of that part of the world have some uncanny resemblance to the Santhal beats. I don’t understand the connection, except maybe the fact that music is a pretty universal language, so its not difficult to find similarities, but the underlying metaphor being essentially the same…that was a bit surprising…
    I’m also listening to a lot of minimalistic genre of music nowadays (listening to Yann Tiersen mostly) after going through an intense phase of chamber and classical romantic music. Tried to develop a taste for space and industrial music…but its too abstract and undefined for my tastes…and doesn’t go well with my present disposition. What about you? Still into Mozart and Brahms? Ohh by the way, I’m getting to watch some real classics these days, Bergman and Jean-Luc Godard are staple now 🙂 advantages of first world, things are easy to get.

    We need to talk some day. Its been a long time…

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