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Surpassing the stereotype, Radhika George, the first female to play Chenda in Kerala

Divya Hemnani | Updated on: 7 February 2018, 16:41 IST

Women are breaking the stereotype by venturing into the places which were once only explored by the male-dominated society. Performing out of the box, things were not practiced by a lot of females in our country but it has changed now. Instruments like Chenda melam, a cylindrical percussion accompanied by ilathalam (a cymbal-like metallic instrument), kombu (a kind of natural horn) and kuzhal (a double reed wind instrument) which is usually played by men in Kerala. From last few years, women are also seen playing Chenda on different occasions and it's not limited to festivals alone, they play in different 'vadyakala' also.

Recently, Radhika Babu George, a 22-year-old civil engineer was the only female playing Chenda among a group of men made her debut at the historical festival of the Ernakulam Shiva Temple where one can easily see men beating the Chenda, facing the diety in a typical Kerala attire. Chenda holds a centerpiece of ' panchari melam'. Panchari melam is usually performed at temple festivals, musicians, dancers, and actors perform at the beats of Chenda.

"I had the best time that day while playing the Chenda at the festival. Usually, panchari melam goes on for three hours and the session goes through five phases. The session begins slowly first, its only in the last phase that pace intensifies and becomes exciting. I almost played Chenda for an hour and a half" says enthusiastic Radhika.

Radhika explains the difficulties that one faces while playing the instrument. She said, “It requires a lot of strength to play Chenda, it is physically demanding. After my first practice, I wasn't able to move my shoulders. From childhood, I was fascinated with drums and their beats, my first tabla class was at the age of five. Gradually, I started learning drums in school."

She has done specialization in different instruments like Indian percussion Tabla, Mridangam, Chenda and western percussion Djembe, Tumba, Cajon, Conga, Bongo, and Drums. She has also received several awards, to name a few ' winner of Hit Like a Girl “ World Percussion” and “Talent Deserving Wider Recognition Award” 2017, ' best drummer, Indian Institute of Technology Cultural Festival, 2016.

It was exciting for her to shift from playing the drums to western vocals, to Carnatic music. Talking about the difference in technique to play the Chenda and drum, she says, “The posture and the technique of moving the stick are different. The wrists while playing Chenda move in and out instead of up and down in drums. For most of the melam, you use one palm and one stick. It’s only well in the fifth phase, that you play with both sticks. So the hand hurts terribly.”

“She has a sense of rhythm. She has good catching power.” He has been teaching Chenda for over a decade now. “We are always happy to teach them (women). But it would be quite difficult for them to match a man,” says her guru R L V Shal.

" After the festival, a lot of grandmothers came and praised me for playing Chenda in the temple. They were proud of me, I almost felt like they are telling me, oh we wished we could have done it when we were young, so sweet they were. The fact that they were happy, made me happy and content" says music fanatic Radhika about her first performance.

First published: 7 February 2018, 16:28 IST