“Right now there are a lot of concrete structures here. But I want the art to make this place come alive”, says Hari Govindanan the founder of a Kala Ashram, in the small village of Angadippuram in the Palghat district of Kerala. Surrounding the ashram are small buildings, all dedicated to the teaching and performance of music. Far from the hustle and bustle of the town center, this is an ideal place for art to flourish. And that is what Hari thought when he established this kala ashram here in the memory of his father.
Hari Govindan’s life is one filled with music. From the age of five, he had followed his father, the late Njaralath Ramapoduval, as a helper. Ramapoduval was one of the foremost exponents of Sopana Sangeetham, a traditional temple music style of Kerala. A song is sung, with the percussion instrument Idakka accompanying it, when the doors of the sanctum sanctorum are closed between pujas. Apart from being a stellar musician Njaralathu was a man ahead of his time.
“Sopana Sangeetham was sung only in the temple at specific times, until my father started performing it outside the temple to spread the art to the masses. He had a concept that nature itself is the Sreekovil (sanctum sanctorum), and god is omnipresent, so one can perform anywhere. Of course, he faced a lot of opposition from the temple authorities who did not want this to happen. But my father was not bothered. Without fighting with anyone he just went on performing for others,” says Hari.
Hari learnt Sopana Sangeetham while watching his father perform. Njaralathu wasn’t the kind of person to sit and teach people his art. A Bohemian in the true sense of the word, his music was his liquor, and his spirit was elevated when he sang. If there was just one interested person who wanted to listen to his music, Njaralathu would gladly oblige. “Before his last stage performance, his instruments were ready, when suddenly a baby went and touched his Idakka. Just for that child he sang for half an hour. And of course he was late for the performance. He was the sort of spirit you couldn’t control.”
“Artists are not supposed to go to temples, because their art should be their God. Just like my father I also faced opposition when I started performing outside the temples, so I built my own temple.” Hari’s effort has been to create a place where artists can come without any formalities and distinctions, and do what they do best, create music. In the ashram there is an Idakka Kalari, a classroom for students to learn the Idakka. There is another building, a temple, in which the only idol is, fittingly, an Idakka.
Kerala society is rich with art, but according to Hari there is discrimination between the creamy arts, which are Kathakali and Mohiniyattam, and the real Kerala music. “Kerala music is not Carnatic music. It is the totality of all the village music in Kerala, which is not getting the recognition it deserves. The creamy art forms get all the media attention and help, and the traditional vocal styles of Kerala are losing out. My effort is to get these artists the proper remuneration, so that they can continue to practice their art.” The road has not been easy. Hari has had to struggle against the authorities, who in typical political style, try to take the credit for what he has done. But he hopes to take a big step with a music festival, the Kerala Sangeeta Ulsavam, which was scheduled to be held in August 2010* in memory of his father.
“It is an opportunity for the traditional vocal artists of Kerala, to come together and perform on a single stage. I have managed to get some funding from the government, but it is a pittance, compared to the amount of money artists who perform at festivals get.”
In an unheard of act, Hari left a job as an English teacher in a private school, to follow his art full time. “There are a lot of people to represent the teaching profession, but there are less than fifty Sopana Sangeetam artists in Kerala. As an artist myself, I consider it my Dharma to promote my art, and to help artists like me. That is what I have put as my aim.”
We ask him if he can sing for us. Like a true artist, he obliges readily and lapses into a roller coaster ride of a song.
I listen mesmerized, as he amazes me and my companions with his vocal range. The song slows down, and then speeds up, and then slows down again, and it is hard for us not to clap with the song. His face is a visage of peace as he sings. When he finishes, we are at a loss for words. Thankfully, he starts off explaining the song.
As we get up to leave, Hari offers to let us stay at his place over the night. “If you are interested we can stay here tonight, and sing and dance and make music.” Sadly we have to refuse, as we have another trip planned early in the morning next day. This Ashram is one that truly resonates with the sound of music.