Kalamandalam Jayaraj is one among the most resounding beats of Mizhavu performers today who actively propagate the art form across national and international stages.Mizhavu is a percussion instrument that usually accompanies performing arts in Kerala like Koodiyattom, Nangiyarkoothu and Chakkiyarkoothu. What started out as an instrument exclusive to the Ambalavasi Nambiar community (engaged in temple services), soon broke away from caste barriers in 1965. This period saw a wave of revolutionary changes in the artistic realm of Kerala.During this time, art forms like Koodiyattam were institutionalized. The learning center of Kerala Kalamndalam under the leadership of Painkulam Rama Chakyar threw open its doors to aspiring artists sans chains of any community barriers. From then, the journey of Mizhavu moved on from being a temple art instrument to a much more accessible one.
Born in Vaniyamkulam town of Kerala’s Palakkad district as the son of Chandran and Girija, Jayaraj was inducted into Kalamandalam in 1998 under the insistence of his father. A Health Centre employee with no real artistic heritage to boast of, Chandran wanted his son to learn art and pursue a career in it. Jayaraj remembers that there were just two students who took Mizhavu classes during the year that he joined. The next year saw no admissions for the instrument’s classes. But the number steadily increased after that. When he passed out of Kalamandalam in 2003 to take his degree at Pattambi Sanskrit College, there were eight students admitted that year. Today, Mizhavu students are a heartening 30-40 in number, indicating the rising popularity of such niche art forms.
The first two years at Kalamandalam were tough for young Jayaraj, because of the strenuous nature of training that Mizhavu necessitates. Unlike many other percussion instruments such as the Chenda which uses Kolu or sticks, a Mizhavu artist relies solely on his hands to produce sounds. The Gurukula system at Kalamandalam meant hours of rigid training that began at 4.30 am and continued through the day. On many days, the students ended up with aching arms and bleeding hands. However, all these hardships yielded fruit on Jayaraj’s Arangettam day. This was his first official performance in front of an audience and one that he had looked forward to. Up until their Arangettam, students were only allowed to practice on wooden versions of the Mizhavu called the Abhyasakkutti. It was during his Arangettam that students are allowed to move up the ladder and perform on large copper drums, giving them a sense of great accomplishment. This along with the many accolades he received from the audience encouraged him to continue on his path as a Mizhavu student and eventually as a performer.His gurus at Kalamdalam were legends in the art form like Kalamandalam Eeshwaran Unni and Kalamandalam Achuthanandan. In Jayaraj’s words, “Nearly all of today’s active Mizhavu artists have grown under the tutelage of these two stalwarts”.
Today, Jayaraj had performed on hundreds of stages across the globe. He has travelled to nearly twelve countries abroad for performances. One of the highlights of his globetrotting is his association with renowned theatre director and playwright Roysten Abel and his experiential and critically acclaimed production ‘The Kitchen’. This production has covered coveted stages such as the Holland Festival, Auckland Festival, Sydney Festival and many more. The theme of the drama is an attempt to understand cooking as a metaphor for life. It makes use of a dazzling fusion of light, sound, smell, taste and emotion through the live preparation of a payasam (Indian dessert) on stage by an estranged couple. The cookingis accompanied by twelve Mizhavu percussionists who are revealed gradually and explore the onstage payasam preparation sonically. In addition to this, he frequently performs Thayambaka, Pancha Thayambaka and Pancharimelam on stages across the country.
As destiny would have it, Jayaraj found a life partner in Kalamandalam Prashanthi, a highly talented and versatile Nangiyarkoothu artist. They met a few years back during a forty-one day Koodiyattam festival in Thrissur. Performing on a number of stages together eventually led them to realize that they were made for each other and soonwere married. Jayaraj says that being married to an artist has given him a chance to discuss the nuances of their upcoming performances and express their ideas better. It has built an environment of healthy cultural conversation at home. For example, Poothanamoksham is an episode that is taken up for performances. It can be interpreted and performed in a number of ways, as long as it stays within the structural framework of Nagiyarkoothu or Koodiyattom. These varied avenues of expression are discussed and rehearsed in an open cultural environment, which has constantly helped in developing the innate artists within both Jayaraj and Prashanthi.
The Kitchen by Roysten Abel. Trailer by Gyan Dev
Jayaraj had also been associated with the Ramanchakyar Smaraka Kalaroopam, one of the seven institutes in the state authorized to propagate performing arts like Koodiyattom. Soon, he moved on as a solo artist and has been engaged in that for the past few years. He feels that today’s generation of Mizhavu students have many advantages that they can use to their benefit. During his schooling at Kalamandalam, there were hardly any opportunities to perform or watch artist perform on the Mizhavu. But today, this is not the case. There are many more ways in which students can watch and learn. Add that to the immense caliber of the artistic talent today and he is confident that the art form is in safe hands with the upcoming generation. With nearly three performances in a day during the festival season from October to April, Jayaraj is happy in continuing his practice sessions during the remaining months. He still considers himself a humble student with much more to learn and experience.
Team Salabhanjika wishes him the best for all his future endeavors.
Video Courtesy : Roysten Abel Youtube Channel, www.roystenabel.com