Drumming has always been seen as a muscular, male preserve. And if it is a part of rituals — bound by the watertight rules of ‘purity’ ( shuddhi ) — the gender skew deepens even further.

The electrifying chenda (drum), an inseparable part of Kerala’s sacred rituals and festivities, was long monopolised by men. The rigour the chenda demands — its unwieldy, heavy form slung across chests left bare as a mark of respect to deities — ensured women were never a part of the picture.

So, the question that came Nandini Varma’s way when she declared her intention to master the chenda at age 13 was naturally: “Violin vaayicha pore (Won’t the violin do)?”

After years of battling questions like these and the gender bias in the temple establishments in the state, Varma is currently the only serious chenda woman professional visible in the annual festival circuits. The other proficient female chenda artiste is the much younger Rahitha Krishnadas from Thiruvananthapuram.

Some temples are opening doors to women drummers, others need to be convinced, and a few like Guruvayoor still resolutely turn down female applicants who wish to play with its prestigious ensembles.

Anyone with less nerve and perseverance would have given up. But Varma, 33, has the boundless energy of a born drummer.

“I can remember being transfixed by the pure energy of the chenda for as long as I can remember,” she says. “There was no other way my life could have gone.” At her home in Tripunithura, a historic corner of Kochi known for its love for classical arts, Varma switches between her roles as an ayurvedic doctor and drummer.

Unnerved by the discouraging voices, she did briefly put away the chenda to try something seen as more feminine. “I obediently tried to learn vocal music, violin, even dance... but nothing worked,” she says, with a mock hapless air.

There are multiple forms of chenda percussion, but the one that has Varma’s heart is the thayambaka , the solo genre, which too is part of ritual performances. “It is easy to attain huge levels of popularity in the melam (ensemble drumming), but I don’t find it satisfying because it is a group effort. For me the thayambaka is the most intensely engaging.”

Tripunithura is home to the Poornathrayeesa temple, whose melams during November–December drew her as a child. Aged 12, she once ran away from home to the temple, a kilometre away, to hear the melam . Her family was quite sure where she would be found — in the first row of chenda enthusiasts, rapt in the melam , oblivious to the panic at home.

When she declared her intention of learning the chenda , it was her mother who backed her through the six tough years of learning, training and performances. She was lucky to land an encouraging master. For Tripunithura Gopikrishnan, gender was not an issue.

It wasn’t that women had never taken up chenda . In the early to the mid 1980s, a few women had mastered it but their involvement ended with marriage. So when Varma appeared on the scene, no woman had wielded the sticks for nearly two decades.

“I had no one to tell me how a woman should wield the chenda . For instance, the drum rests just under the umbilicus, so there are fears that it could cause pelvic stress for women. I had to just come up with my own solutions,” she says. The otta , the traditional underwear that involves wrapping a length of fine cotton snug around the lower abdomen before passing it between the legs and securing it like a dhoti, seemed a good idea, and so she adopted it.

Serious mastery over the chenda is not for the fainthearted. Apart from unrelenting hours of practice every day, there is the brutal training during the monsoon months, the sadhakam — a sort of meditative, pre-dawn ritual. You wake in the dark hours, the body stiff with the damp and cold of the rains, and practise for 3–4 hours till the wrist and shoulders loosen up.

“I never asked for any excuse from these rigours as a woman; I didn’t ask for exceptional appreciation as a woman either. My own beliefs don’t allow me to play in a temple during periods, but other than that nothing differentiates me from male drummers,” says Varma, who went on to learn with two more masters, Sankarakulangara Radhakrishnan and Porur Unnikrishnan, each strengthening a different aspect of her skills.

But the biggest challenge actually came after she had become adept — finding a place to play in orthodox temple precincts. Traditionally, different Brahminical sects ( ambalavasis ) were assigned different tasks at temples. Drumming was assigned to the Marars. “If men from non-traditional castes can’t find an entry into this hallowed circuit you can imagine how tough it is for women,” says Kalamandalam Harish Marar, Varma’s husband, who, too, is a drummer and the son of legendary chenda master Annamanada Parameswara Marar.

Last year, at the famed Koodalmannikyam temple in Irinjalakkuda, Varma was grudgingly allowed to play with the ensemble but not the thayambaka . “So she stood just outside the temple walls and played; it made a history of sorts,” says Marar admiringly.

Varma has a firm supporter in her husband, who has fought on her behalf with conservative establishments.

He had, after all, made her promise she would never give up on the chenda after marriage. “Otherwise I was never interested in marriage. All I needed in my life was the chenda ,” says Varma with a guffaw. In fact the couple has started what it calls dampatya thayambaka , a couple’s performance in which, Varma says, neither leads or follows but performs as equals.

What rankles Varma is that Guruvayoor, the high temple of ritual arts, has yet to give her an opportunity. “ Pennkuttikal kottenda (girls don’t need to drum here), is the standard response. I write to them every year to be included and they refuse to answer. But I don’t give up. I won’t,” she says.


Malini Nair is a journalist based in Delhi; E-mail: malininair1@gmail.com