In this article, Remitha Mathew digs deeper into the ways in which a small number of Malayalis living in the East Coast region of North America are preserving their heritage and serving as an example to younger people through the ‘Chenda.’
Even though their thoughts are based in the United States, the verdant landscapes of Kerala are forever imprinted on their hearts. Chenda Melam is a mesmerising percussion ensemble that is prominent in the Indian state of Kerala. As a result of this, a handful of Malayalis living on the East Coast region of North America gathered together with great delight and splendour to form their own Chenda Melam group.
In addition to his day job in the information technology industry, Sanjith Nair is a devoted and accomplished percussionist. The Pennsylvania-New Jersey Vadhya Vedhi, which is a Panchari Melam musical group based in the tri-state area, looks to him as their primary instructor and mentor. The first meeting consisted of training sessions for both the men and the women in the group.
“In the beginning, the Chenda Melam performances seemed to be only an occasion for people to play the instrument for the sake of grooving to the music that was being played at the community events. According to Sanjith Nair, “this is why some of us decided to learn the instrument with all the respect and dedication it deserves, and not simply as a means of entertainment.”
Kalamandalam Shivadas Ashaan, who is based in Thrissur, is the one responsible for imparting knowledge and expertise to the members of the group. The Kalamandalam Shivadas Ashaan is the organisation that has taken the initiative to educate this group about Chenda Melam by providing both in-person and virtual classes.
Sanjith Nair chimes in to say that “no matter how painful our hands got or how many calluses formed, the group always showed intense determination while practising,” and he continues on to say that “no matter how many calluses formed.”
It’s possible that the group’s Chenda produced vibrations that echoed sufficiently enough to earn them an invitation to perform at the Kerala Piravi celebrations held at the office of the Consul General of India in New York.
An information technology specialist named Valsan Vellalath, who now works in New York, recalls that while he was a child in Thrissur, one of his favourite things to do was to watch Chenda Melam. He says, “Chenda Melam was always there around me growing up.” It was a dream come true for me to finally get back in touch with my family’s heritage.”
This band has never failed to leave their audiences speechless and completely awestruck. When their performances reach a crescendo, however, there is nearly always loud applause that reverberates throughout the venues in which they are performing.
“People come up to us and ask about our training sessions and if we would accept new members; it is very encouraging for us to see that there are young kids who want to learn Chenda as well,” adds Valsan Vellalath. “People come up to us and ask about our training sessions and if we would accept new members.”
This team has etched an indelible memory into the brains of its audience thanks to the awe-inspiring performances they have given.
Every week, the band would spend many hours together honing their craft, and this was especially true whenever we were asked to perform at a special occasion. Valsan Vellalath chimes in to say that “We push our limits and perfect every beat and rhythm.”
Authentic senior director and western drums percussionist Prem Ramachandran felt the need to connect to his roots in Kerala. At the same time, he liked the challenge of trying to master the instrument while flawlessly executing complex rhythmic patterns and synchronising definite beats with the other percussionists on stage.
The group has developed this passion and interest in Chenda Melam thanks to the two years of intensive instruction they have received. They have unwittingly become this group of males and females who band together for the purpose of pursuing a shared goal, which is to listen to the sound of Chenda echoing throughout the atmosphere.
An event that was loud and rowdy was caused by the members of the group beating on the drums. It happened so frequently that the audience was left speechless, and they nearly invariably cheered after each tremendous beat,” Prem Ramachandran says.
Aparna Menon, Head of US Digital Marketing at TB Bank and a Kathak dancer, recalls accompanying her family to festivals and cultural events in Kerala, where the much sought-after Chenda Melam performance would appear. Chenda Melam is a traditional dance form from the Indian state of Kerala. This recollection inspired her to become an expert in the craft, which required a lot of ability, technique, and pure artistry on her part.
As a Kathak dancer, one must pay close attention to the rhythm of the music. It seemed to me that Chenda Melam operated on the same basis. Aparna Menon chimes in to say, “I could easily draw parallels to the mathematics, the counts, and rhythm-based harmony.”
Aparna’s participation in the Chenda Melam wasn’t just about women’s representation for her; she also did it because she is a mother, and she wanted to instill in her children, who were born and nurtured in the United States, a deep appreciation for the rich cultural heritage of Kerala.
In addition, Aparna, who has been practising Chenda for a number of years, believes that it is exhilarating to play the instrument with in-phase coordination while simultaneously improving the timing, keeping the pace, and aligning one’s body movements with the movements of the other percussionists in the group.