27 Apr 2017: ‘Sopanatatvam’ - A unique book on the temple music of Kerala



Sopanatatvam is a beautifully written and insightful book on Sopana Sangeetham – traditional music of Kerala rendered as a ritual musical offering at the sopana (steps) of the temple. Sung to the accompaniment of the small hourglass-shaped ethnic percussion called idakka by the musician himself and the metallic gong chengila, the rendition is uncomplicated and full of feeling. Sopana Sangeetham also provides accompaniment to traditional Kerala dance-dramas like Kathakali and Krishnanattam and the ritual Kalam paattu and Mudiyettu.

This book throws light on this classic yet very much prevalent cultural tradition of Kerala. The book traces the organic evolution of Sopana music from the early aboriginal, Vedic and folk music that existed in the region that later came to be called Kerala. How it faithfully absorbed into every aspect of its form and structure, regional flavours, and nuances at each stage of its development, finally culminating at the sopana (steps) of the Kerala temple where it came to be an inseparable part of ritual worship, forms a fascinating read. For the same reason it captures the essence of Kerala’s culture like no other art or philosophy.

Rhythm is of utmost importance in Sopana music and it is rhythm rather than drone which leads the music. Rhythm in Sopana music, developed from early folk rhythms, is connected to the classical tradition through the method of its execution. It is at the same time both simple and complex and guides the rendering at every stage. The special affection and intimacy that Kerala’s music maintains with rhythm renders it unique and different from the music of other regions of India. At the same time the style is one rich in bhakti (devotion) and feeling. The music that blooms from the sopana (steps) is one that, in service to tantra and mantra, brings a new meaning to spirituality through performing the noble task of propagating the hallowed sentiment of bhakti. In Sopana music, bhakti is not the mere submission of blind faith . . . it is a bhakti that is an artistic expression of a devoted, dedicated awareness. While it is rendered typically to the beats of the idakka, in the traditional dramatic arts, it is sung to the accompaniment of other percussion like the maddalam, chenta, timila and the ilattaalam.

Sopana sangeetham has its own unique ragas. It also uses many ragas that are in vogue in Carnatic music. However, unlike Carnatic music, Sopana Sangeetham follows a more uncomplicated plain-note profile and is usually devoid of microtones or flourishes, never seeking to completely exhaust the musical possibilities of a raga. As in the case of the north Indian Hindustani classical music the style has definite prescribed ragas for particular hours of the day and night.

Along with highlighting the folk traditions of music and dance, the book is also a sociological journey weaving the textures of an interdependent social fabric. In addition to an account of the background and features of Sopana Sangeetham, the book also provides an account of the history of the development of performing arts and music in Kerala. For the first time the book brings to light the invaluable contribution made by the Malayalam poet Kunchan Nambiar towards the musical tradition of Kerala by unearthing the rich rhythmic traditions that lay hidden in the music of the so called low castes and incorporating them in his Thullal dance drama. The book also traces the origin and development of important classical and semi-classical art forms of Kerala like Kathakali, Koodiyattam, Krishnanattam and Thullal and how the essence of Sopana Sangeetham and its spiritual philosophy runs through all these, lending them their characteristic Keralan flavour.

The book also gives an account of how the classical dance style of Mohiniyattam, one of the seven classical styles of India, has been enriched and its repertoire widened with the application of Sopana music, its rhythms and spiritual philosophy to the practice of the dance by Kavalam Narayana Panikkar. This is a model that can be emulated for the organic reinvention of any traditional art. Significance of the concept of pakarnnattam in the Keralan artistic tradition and Kavalam’s view on why Mohiniyattam is not a later version of Dasiyattam are discussed.

This book is a scholarly but joyous adventure. Perhaps it is made more special as it has been written from the heart and soul of an accomplished and celebrated artist, a lifelong devotee of multifaceted crafts – Kavalam Narayana Panikkar. Dramatist, theatre director, writer and poet, KN Panikkar succeeds in charming us with his enthusiastic excitement to ensure that information about Sopana Sangeetham is well-grasped by culture connoisseurs, art students including the avidly curious general reader. The lucid liquid style of the book, thanks to the skillful translation by Sulini V Nair, within an important cultural chronology brings us among the beats of the instruments complemented by the graceful movements of devoted dancers.

The journey of Sopana Sangeetham to its present form and stature spanning several centuries is an important development that must be included in any study of Kerala’s cultural and social history. Sopanatatvam is the first ever scholarly work specifically on Sopana Sangeetham and generally about the performance arts culture of Kerala. The book is beautifully written; the translation is superb as never does one get the feeling that it is a work of translation. The content is authoritative and will serve as important reference material for students as well as aficionados of music, dance, and performing arts.

Salient details:

Sopanatatvam: The Tradition and Philosophy of Sopana Music
Author (of the Malayalam original): Kavalam Narayana Panikkar
Translator: Sulini V Nair
Amaryllis Publishing, New Delhi. 2017
ISBN: 978-9381506943
Pp 252 | Rs 295

Courtesy: Inputs from Publisher

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