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Kalamandalam Sankara Warrier: An exceptional genius
- V Kaladharan

February 23, 2021

Suddha Maddalam is probably the heaviest of the two principal percussion instruments in Kathakali and in Panchavadyam, the traditional temple orchestra. Its precursor is Thoppi Maddalam, small and wieldy, widely used in Krishnanaattam, Ramanaattam and in the pre-sanitized Mohiniyattam.

It was Thirvilwamala Venkichan Swamy who redefined and reinforced the role of Suddha Maddalam in Kathakali and Panchavadyam in the first half of the 20th century. The musical harmony between the high sounding Chenda and the relatively mellowed Maddalam attains its highest peak in Kathakali. For the male characters in this dance drama, Chenda dominates with its assertive beats while the Maddalam lends incessant support besides plugging the loopholes inbetween the strokes on the Chenda. For the female characters, Maddalam is the sole major Vadya enriching lasya along with the gamaka laden swaras of Edakka.

Last century witnessed the immaculate artistry of immensely talented Maddalam players in the aforesaid genres. Of them, Kalamandalam Sankara Warrier is an exceptional genius. He redrew the contours of Maddalam in Kathakali by means of his remarkable faculties - an acute musical sensibility, an intimate understanding of the visual dynamics, virtuosity, internalization of the textual and the contextual emotions and an irrepressible urge to transcend the traditional frontiers of this indigenous percussion instrument.

Warrier, on completion of his training at Kalamandalam, secured the post of an instructor there. He toured, as member of the Kathakali troupe, cultural hubs in India and abroad, in the 1970's. Following a sterling performance in Mumbai/London, the then British PM, Margaret Thatcher, a VVIP invitee, went on stage and generously complimented Warrier's wizardry. (Margaret Thatcher and Maddalam. What an oxymoron!).

Nevertheless, Kalamandalam soon turned out to be claustrophobic to this prodigy. He bade farewell to his alma mater and joined FACT Kathakali School, Udyogamandal. That marked the beginning of his tour de force in the field. For nearly a quarter century, Warrier has been a rebel with a cause and sometimes without a cause. "Maddalam is never given its due in Kathakali," accuses an ever aggrieved Warrier in an angry tone. His presence on the Kathakali stage has become few and far between over the years mainly on account of his disinclination. Visibly frustrated is he for legitimate reasons. A savagely frank Warrier has antagonized many including his own Guru with his autobiographical notes in a recently released biography noted for narcissistic (athmakaamana) undertones as well.

I should have prepared this scribbling in Malayalam. But then I thought I should let my friends and art lovers outside Kerala know a little about this artiste nonpareil. Hearing him play, you will be carried away by the magnificent fingerings and staccato beats of Warrier on the two surfaces of the Maddalam. Amongst the eminent ethnic percussionists of South India, Sankara Warrier is an artiste characterized by multiple oddities. In terms of brilliance he is second only to the Thavil wizard, Valayapatti Subramaniam.

Former Deputy Registrar of Kerala Kalamandalam, V Kaladharan is also an art critic. He has published several articles at the academic level. 'From Meditative Learning to Impersonal Pedagogy' was published a couple of years back in an anthology 'Qui Parley' initiated and released by scholars and writers from the University of California, Berkeley. His articles on Indian performing arts and literature regularly appear in magazines and journals, and in the Friday Page of The Hindu.

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