Wearing crisp white Kasavu sarees with a tinge of green, carefully draped to showcase the famous golden zari border, twenty women shuffle about marking out patches in a garden. But what looks like a setting for Onam celebrations is actually Kerala’s all women drummer band gearing up for a performance in New Delhi.
Among them is 56-year-old Shanta, the oldest and one of three founding members of the group. In her hands is a Manjeera (small hand cymbal), a less imposing instrument as compared to the 8-10 kg chenda (the traditional percussion drum) the others throw onto their left shoulders. Not to say that Shanta can’t handle the chenda anymore, “I still play it in other performances,” she beams, adding that it is on a rotational basis that members switch between the chenda or manjeera or even holding high and turning the bright red and pink umbrellas in the last of five rows in their stage formation.
It was in April 2006 that Shanta (who is from Kannur ditrict) along with two other housewives approached a group of Shingari melam (a percussion based performance style) male artists who had come from Palakkad district. “We were really drawn by the beats and I wondered why women couldn’t also learn and perform,” she says. She then convinced the men to teach them and learnt how to play. Soon, the members increased from three to seven including women from Kasargod district to the twenty two it stands at today.
Shingari melam back then was a male dominated art form. In fact, any form of drumming was restricted to men whether it was for rituals in temples or even socially. “In a way, it started as a challenge, to say that we could do it too, understand rhythym, pick up the chenda, play and earn,” says Shanta. “They are housewives, primarily those of fishermen and were largely dependent on their husbands for money. Once they took up shingari melam, there were protests in the community, the men (outside their families) could not tolerate it but as they got more performances, they had to give in,” says Dr V Jayarajan, Chairman of the Folkland International Centre for Folklore and Culture in Payyanur which has largely supported the group since its formation. “Some of the women who were part of the group had to leave along the way because of family problems but there are always more willing to join. These women now have a status in their society, that they perform a traditional art and earn for their families,” he adds.
After each member learnt how to play the chenda and the manjeera, the women even improvised on their performance to add line dances even as the beats run fast, then slow and suddenly rapid once again. There is not a trace of fatigue even as the drummers entertain a chorus of “once more” at this particular festival. More remarkable still is that the women thrust back their chendas right away and proceed to present a different routine, 20 minutes long all the same after having already performed thrice in the day.
The group started out small performing at local football games and weddings but have now traveled to cultural festivals across the country including Karnataka, Goa, Tamil Nadu and now Delhi too. Performing for about 15 days in a month, each member earns anything between Rs 400-800 per day for multiple shows that span a maximum of one and a half hours a day. Ask how it works for them, all but two being housewives and away from home so often and for long? Pat comes the reply. “People are very progressive in Kerala so we are encouraged by our families. We tour for about two weeks in a month. At times we are even away for a month but our husbands and families support us,” says 29-year-old Anisha. Of course, it must help that Anisha’s sister Vijisha (21) and mother Karthyani (54) are also part of the group.