God’s Own Hands: Celebrating Our Finest Instrumentalists

The most beautiful aspect of music is how it eliminates all kinds of imagined constructs between people. For years, Kerala has been an abode for various streams of music, tolerant to all kinds of influences: If in the 1800s, there was a Swati Tirunal in Travancore who popularized Carnatic and Hindustani music, there was also a St Thomas Christian music movement that came to Kerala in the 1900s. By the 1930s, most major temples had five-piece orchestras (Panchavadyam) for festivals. While the aforementioned examples were still seen as ‘sophisticated’, there was the ever-accessible naadan paattu or folk music, that gave the common man a creative voice for all kinds of situations they found themselves in: from harvest songs to vanchipaattu (rowing songs) to Mappilapaattu to Pulluvanpaattu and so on. 

The sheer range of instruments that have been in popular use in Kerala is astounding. And as mentioned earlier, a lot of this could be attributed to how receptive we have been as a society of listeners, to all kinds of cultures and sounds. We thought it’d be fun to create a cross-generational, cross-genre Dream Team of our supremely talented artists. (It was definitely not an easy task, considering the volume of talent generated in the state over the years.) So here we go! 

Peruvanam Kuttan Marar

This chenda maestro was born into a family of chenda artists. Ever since he debuted at the age of 10, there has been no looking back. He has led some of the biggest percussion ensembles of the world, a highlight being the Elanjithara Melam at the Thrissur Pooram. In 2011, he received the Padma Shri for his contributions to art. If you’ve headbanged to him live at Thrissur Pooram, do comment below!

Kudamaloor Janardanan

Janardananji turned a self-taught flautist at the age of 7. He has some unconventional ideas about Carnatic music. He follows a raga-based approach: he improvises almost the entire piece around a particular raga for live performances. He is also an A-grade artist of All India Radio and a panelist of the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.

Balabhaskar

Balabhaskar was a prodigy. He became a music composer at the age of 17 (for the film Mangalya Pallak), thereby becoming the youngest to do so. He toured extensively, and often dabbled into fusion and world music. His debut instrumental fusion album, Let It B, has interesting layers of jazz, rock and even hip-hop that play around his violin. Sadly, he passed away in October 2018 due to a cardiac arrest after sustaining multiple injuries in a car accident. 

Baiju Dharmajan

Baiju’s father used to play the Hawaiian guitar and his grandfather was a Carnatic musician. Does that explain why he created a delightful hybrid of the two styles that heavily influenced the sound of Motherjane (the band he was then part of)? His Carnatic riffs (especially in Fields of Sound and Mindstreet) are pure bliss. Apart from independent work, Baiju has also had a string of exciting collaborations, including the likes of Karsh Kale, Keith Peters and Naresh Iyer.

Stephen Devassy 

Having performed at over 2000 stages in 60 countries, Stephen is undoubtedly the youth icon for world music in Kerala (heard his album Romanza yet?). Though he is essentially a pianist, he gets the crowds going loco with his renditions on the keytar as well. He has been part of many collectives- notably the Christian band Rexband, that performed in front of Pope John Paul II in 2002. In addition to all this, he also runs an audio tech institute where he does arrangements for films.

Rajesh Cherthala

After training himself in Carnatic and Hindustani music, Rajesh made an entry into films in 2004 with the Jassie Gift album ‘Rain Rain Come Again’. Since then, he has played the flute for over 150 films. He is also skilled at a variety of other instruments like the saxophone, melodica, duduk and clarinet. He’s been a disciple of the legend flautist Hariprasad Chaurasia for the past nine years, and wishes to dive into classical music concerts soon. Check out his YouTube channel for some kickass covers!

Roopa Revathi 

After winning Amrita Superstar in 2007 and debuting as playback singer through Madampi (2008),  Roopa got her second big break – one as a violinist – in 2011, with the film Urumi. Soon after, she joined KS Chitra’s band and toured extensively as a violinist. Of late, she has so turned to YouTube to upload covers and other videos. In a space traditionally dominated by men, she has carved her niche and is an inspiration for all aspiring women instrumentalists! 

Sanjeev Thomas 

Sanjeev is a guitarist, music producer, and singer. Notably, he was the lead guitarist for AR Rahman from 2005 to 2015, working on blockbuster albums such as VTV, Rockstar and Delhi-6. Apart from doing independent work, he has also ventured into composing music for films (Vilakkumaram and Manoharam). BTW: His unplugged version of Chekele is a different vibe altogether!

Varun Sunil

This gifted percussionist was a long time associate of artists such as Stephen Devassy and Hariharan. After years of composing jingles for brands in Chennai, he founded Masala Coffee in 2014. He has adapted South American instruments like the Conga and the Cajon for Masala Coffee’s brand of fusion music. This quarantine, he has been jamming with everything in his house, from buckets to couches to baskets. (Check out his Instagram if you haven’t!)

There’s a blatant truth we need to address; the music behind the songs you love, is a constructive interference of the efforts of a lot of people. And sometimes, I feel that the credit for a good piece of music is unevenly distributed, with the singer(s) and the composer getting a bigger share of the pie.  Unfair, isn’t it? I think it’s time we started celebrating musicians more. Let’s take this opportunity and send out love to all the instrumentalists who went through (and are going through) great hardships to get their due. In the comments section below, do mention your favourite instrumentalists. They could be a 20th century Veena player or a nextdoor guitar noob, doesn’t matter. Go ahead and <Nike>. 

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