Monday, April 18, 2016

Unusual Occupations : God's own Orchestra

O - God’s own Orchestra   


Their day begins at 3.30 am. By 4.30 am it is the auspicious time to wake up the reigning deity at this ancient temple.  The gold encrusted door of the sanctum sanctorum is closed. The chief priest is bathing and dressing up the deity (alankaram) before she gives the morning appearence (darshan) to the devotees that morning.  

Akshay, Anoop and the rest of the musicians are up, bathed and have applied a fresh sandalwood paste and vermilion on their forehead. They are ready to begin the pre-morning ritual.

The drum beats are initially slow, spaced at intervals that precede the recital that would be rendered soon.  At regular intervals the drum beats increase in rhythm and pace that is exactly double the speed of the previous cycle of drum beats.

Soon, a composition in Ragam Bhoopalam – the morning raga to wake up the deity would be rendered by the two of them while the drum beats keep count of the rhythm on their respective musical instruments.

It is not a special occasion. Just another day of temple rituals followed 365 days an year. At this hour in the morning, there are the usual regular devotees from the neighbourhood that throng the temple. 
For most of them it is their daily routine and the way of life. 

After the main deity has been invoked with her morning rituals, the ritual is carried out for all other deities in other sanctum sanctorum of the temple. Unto each god and goddess there are special compositions sung and played in his/ her praise.  These are called Dhyanis and vaa pattu, the compositions that have been handed down in the oral tradition for many generations from the original composer.

These are then followed by keertanas, a full composition sung in praise of each of the deities in a particular raga that would be appropriate for the time of the day.

In the morning it would be ragam bhoopalam, the morning raga while the close of the day before the goddess goes to sleep it would be a composition in ragam neelambari the special raga in which lullabies are sung.  

Between the pre-sunrise ( brahma muhurtam) rituals and post sunset rituals ( see veli)  are four other rituals , one after sunrise, one during the noon , the one when the temple opens again for the evening after the siesta time for the gods, the priest and god’s own orchestra. 

The six rituals daily are accompanied by the musicians accompanied by their respective musical instruments who invoke the gods and the goddesses with their music on all the six occasions, every day for all the days of the year.     
Akshay has been trained and holds a diploma from the Panchavadhya Kala peedam, an institution committed to preserving the local heritage, art forms and rituals. In the three years he spent over there he learnt all the traditional musical instruments that are part of the Rituals for daily occasions as well as special occasions. There are compositions that need to be played at different times of the day and then there are special ones that are rendered on auspicious occasions.  Akshay’s father is employed at the temple office.  He was Chendu Vadhyam artist in his younger days and performed at the temple.  When his son was growing up it was a natural transition to take up the occupation. 

He was sent to the Kala Peetham  - the Art school for the diploma after finishing high school.  Akshay also gets called to other temples or festivities when they require a trained percussion instrument  player. His alma mater, alumni and the network come in handy for him to earn a living especially during the festive season apart from his duties at the temple.

It is one such day at the temple when Akshay has been summoned to another town for playing the edaykka, the hourglass-shaped drum with yet another troupe.  He has been substituted by another apprentice who could not be more than ten or twelve years old. 

Anoop on the other hand comes from a family that is a regular at the temple.  However his family wants Anoop to follow the conventional route to make a living and not the one that he is currently doing.

To fulfill their expectations, Anoop did go to work for a brief while to Chennai, the big metropolis, away from home to make a living. He had managed a job at a telemarketing outfit with a multinational company.  He got the job offer when the company had come over to recruit in his home town. They were looking for as many bright young men and women as possible who could be trained in basic English communication skills. 

Very similar to Anoop the young graduates in his town knew to read and write English, but were tongue tied when it came to speaking in the Queen’s language. Virtually everyone around the place spoke in native Malayalam as it was awkward to speak in English with people who spoke your native tongue. Thus their spoken English lacked the vocabulary and the accent required to convince the customer that called in at the call center. 

The call center put the young recruits through rigorous training in a posh hotel for almost a month where they were taught to roll their ‘R’s ‘and differentiate their V’s and W’s when talking in English. It was called the accent neutralization training. Those were the heady days when Anoop thought he had arrived in life.  The modern clothes that they were expected to wear for work was a far cry from the simple cotton mundu veshti and  bare chested attire that they sported at home.

The tall glass air conditioned buildings that would be their offices looked unbelievably glamorous and had the comforts unthinkable in the sultry and humid weather conditions at their dusty ancient homes in Kerala. 

It wasn’t until the honey-moon period of training at the posh hotel ended that the reality dawned on the young recruits including Anoop.  The hours at the call center were long; the central air conditioning numbed their bodies while the monotonous job numbed their souls. Making sales calls involved chasing targets that were hard to come by.  Working the nights continuously for weeks and months would take a toll on their health.  Surviving on the takeaway food from food joints, day in and day out would make Anoop terribly homesick. However the fear of not being able to live up to his parent’s expectations kept him on. For a couple of years he did manage to grit it and bear it. 
It was the time when he had come home on a festival holiday.  He came down to the temple and was taken as a substitute on that day for one of the regular musician who had gone out of town on some work. It was then that his calling struck him like a lightning.

Almost without a second thought he decided that he was not going back to work. He stayed back, never returned to the call center and became a regular musician, specializing in vocal music and occasionally playing the Edakkya - the percussion instrument  at the temple, much to the disappointment of his family.  His family considers him a loser. 

Many a times an elderly family acquaintance that sees him playing at the temple would stop by and offer him kind advice to move on in life by seeking a ‘normal’ occupation.

He has never had any formal training in Sopana Sangeetham unlike Akshay who has a formal diploma to his credit. However since his childhood he has been a regular at the temple and with his musical bent of mind, he managed to pick up most of the compositions over time.  Playing the instruments came naturally to him. 

In his conversations with us, he recollects his days in Chennai at the call enter where he did that soul numbing job under the supervision of a vulture like boss and says he is glad he got out of it. 
He says if push comes to shove, he would start a mechanic shop repairing vehicles somewhere in this town. That is an occupation he is familiar with and can give him a steady income.  But he would never want to go back to the city.

Anoop pauses for a brief while and reflectively, says that he very well realizes that no girl would want to marry a man like him with no 'respectable' occupation that can help run a family. With mischief in his eyes, he says he would think of taking up a ‘regular’ job for a few years when the time comes.  At twenty four,  marriage seems like a faraway milestone in his life. For now he is happy doing what he is doing.

A little while later, in a calm and pensive mood, Anoop says something way beyond the wisdom one expects at his age, that leaves a deep imprint on me.  

He says that deep down in his soul he knows that no matter where life takes him, his soul will return to this temple to Sing and play the Edakkya in front of the Deity.     

He did not have to tell this in so many words. I had somehow known that instinctively, the previous day. I was watching him outside the sanctum sanctorum of the ‘Shiva linga’ in the temple.  A couple  of  minutes before they were summoned by the priest from the closed doors of the sanctum, with the ring of the double bell that was supposed to be their cue, he was like any other young man fooling around with his friends a few meters away waiting for the old man to beckon them for the ritual.

The moment he was summoned to the sanctum,  a different Anoop took form.  In him was a devotee who rendered a composition of Lord Shiva with utmost sincerity, completely lost unto himself. That could not have gone unnoticed by someone who had been watching him all along. This was a very different from the playful Anoop that he was a few minutes ago.     

At that moment I knew that he was gifted. From him emanated the single minded focus and energy that is exclusive to people who know what their calling is and have zeroed in to focus on that very divine moment. 

Someone had told me a few years earlier that, it was exactly how it felt to watch Tendulkar focusing on the moment when he faces the ball. 

Blessed are those who know their true calling.  Specially blessed are those who have figured out their true calling when they are still young. Although unlike the Little Master who had it all cut-out for him early on in life, many face untold hardships, societal ridicule and family pressures that could take a severe toll on their self-esteem and worse still deter them from being focused on their true calling.    

Click here for a one minute video to glimpse of what a-day-in-the-life of this unusual orchestra troupe looks like ... 


  1. VGPAL8:43 AM

    This is another good one - I would call it Chenda Vadhyam though. Which temple is this by the way?

    The Little Master did not have all cut-out for him - he worked hard rather played hard to get what he wanted! I must warn such insinuation are unwarranted!

  2. Good post :) I agree with above comment about Sachin though.


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