After six months of no work, flood-hit Kerala drummers find their way back to music

At the height of the deluge in Kerala in August 2018, 41-year old Santosh Kumar, an indigenous drummer in Alappuzha’s Kuttanad region, knew deep in his heart that among the many things he would lose to the flood waters would be his livelihood, practiced and perfected for the past four decades. 

Santosh is the secretary of the Brothers Chenda Mela Kalasamathi, a group of 16 indigenous percussionists or ‘chenda’ players who have been making a living by performing in temples and churches for the last 20 years. 

“After the water receded in September last year, we went to our practice shed in Pulinkunnu and saw that our chendas and valamthalas were rotting on the watery floor,” Santosh recalls. 

The troupe which primarily performs during the temple season of December to May, had in its possession 10-11 indigenous drums, handed over as heirloom from previous generations. The drums, Santosh says, are extremely sensitive to water and will not sound the same if exposed to rain. 

So, when these instruments sank in flood water for 20 days or more, their skin decayed and the wood caught mould, making it brittle and unusable. 

“Usually these drums would become useless even if a few droplets of water fall on the skin. The skin is made of many layers of cow hide and the wood is made of jackfruit trunk. So when it got wet, there was a terrible stench in the room,” Santosh says. 

The chenda and valamthala are both cylindrical percussion instruments local to the states of Kerala, Tamil Nadu and other parts of South India. In Kerala, several groups of indigenous musicians including chenda players make a living out of performing at temple festivals during the season. 

However, post the floods, many of these groups found it hard to make a living as they lost all their instruments. 

“The performances made up for half a year’s worth of income, which was lost almost entirely during the floods. Even if we worked hard we could not have afforded to buy the drums. So we decided to take them on rent and perform,” he says. 

What did not work for these musicians was the hiring fee which came up to Rs 2000 per day. “At the end of the day, we are left with Rs 500 if you take away food and travel expenses,” Santosh says. 

‘I am for Aleppy’ gifts new drums to troupe 

In September, the group approached the district sub collector Krishna Teja for money to buy new instruments and restore their livelihoods. 

This, in turn led to Save the Children, a children’s NGO, getting roped in. Spending nearly Rs 1.60 lakh on the instruments, the organisation gifted brand new drums to the group. 

“We were building livelihoods for flood victims in Alappuzha, Wayanad and Pathanthitta. When the collector alerted us to this issue, we met the chenda group and analysed their needs and took stock of their demands,“ Ipsita Das, team leader of I am for Aleppy told TNM. 

On Tuesday, the NGO gifted the group with six chendas and 5 valamthalas, putting an end to them renting these drums. 

“There is a different kind of happiness with playing your own instruments. We wanted to give these artists that joy. Now we hope they are happy,” Ipsita tells TNM.

With the new percussion instruments, the group can now save Rs 2000 per day and an amount not less than Rs 200 per person everyday. 

“We get a monthly income altogether of Rs 60,000 or 70,000. When we divide this, it does not amount to much. When we rent instruments we lose Rs 200 per person and Rs 100 for food and stay. This eats into our profits. Thanks to Save the Children, this has been avoided,” Santosh says. 

While the group earns six months of their income through performances, the remaining part of the year, they work as auto rickshaw drivers, farm labourers, construction and daily wage workers etc. 

Additionally, 70% of the group also hails from Schedule Caste/Schedule Tribes and other marginalised groups. 

“Apart from the money, being percussion instruments is a matter of pride for us. We have been learning the Chenda’s rhythm ever since we were born. From our fathers and grandfathers we learnt to play it. Therefore, to lose the drums to a natural calamity was unfortunate. But now we are happy and grateful,” Santosh says.