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Ritual Music and Hindu Rituals of Kerala

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Item Code: NAL078
Author: Rolf Killius
Publisher: B.R. Publishing Corporation
Language: English
Edition: 2006
ISBN: 9788188827077
Pages: 144 (Throughout Color Illustrations)
Cover: Hardcover
Other Details 10.0 inch X 7.5 inch
Weight 620 gm
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Book Description
About the Book

This study explores the relationship of the Hindu religious rituals to the percussion dominated music genres in the south Indian state Kerala. It is both, an introduction to the ritual performances and to the musical styles. It takes up the quest to investigate how ritual meaning is expressed through music, it illuminates aesthetic beauty and the relative independent importance of the musical styles within the ritual context. The study investigates how and why the temple music ensembles are dominated by the ubiquitous drums and bronze cymbals and based on a sophisticated rhythm structure rather than on melody.

Extended fieldwork within the musician communities in Kerala enabled the author, Rolf Killius, to arrange this work from the viewpoint of the musicians. As there are thousands of hereditary professional temple musicians in the districts of central Kerala, this work is mainly based on the oral knowledge of these communities, however the few academic accounts of scholars were considered. The musicians’ perspective, identified and illustrated through text, photographs, and tables should unfold the diversity of this musical culture. Thus Indian and percussion music aficionados and scholars alike should benefit from this study.

About the Author

Rolf Killius is a consultant (museums,exhibitions, media), ethnomusicologist (MMus, SOAS, London University), sound recordist, and radio journalist, whose work appears in a variety of contexts. He was born in Germany, lived in Switzerland and India, and presently divides his time between London and New Delhi.

In 1996-97 he spent 15 months in Kerala, where he recorded the documented nearly all Kshetram Vadyam styles. During this time he worked and has been working since with nearly all bandleaders and solo artists in Kerala. This research, recording and documentation project was conducted in conjunction with the British Library Sound Archive (BLSA), London.

Since November 2000 the BLSA and Rolf Killius have been working on a project – Traditional Music in India (TMI) – to record, document and research folk, devotional and ritual music in India. Part of the project is to collect and document more than 100 musical instruments for the Horniman Museum in London.

For nearly ten years he has been a regular producer and writer of radio broadcasts and articles about Indian, Romanian and Arabic music for different Swiss, German and UK radio stations and publications. He recorded, produced, and mastered nine CDs in UK, Switzerland, Germany, France, and Netherlands featuring South Asian music cultures.


A labour of love: creating a book, first as a website, documenting a ritual and ritual music from around the world. A labour that, doubtless, add to the world’s knowledge, which seeks to reinforce exclusivity, the specificity of a region’s cultural performance production, as it applies to religion and ritual. At the same time, it seeks to assist our inclusive understanding, because ritual and ritual processes are cornerstones of human life. Rolf Killius has spent a number of years in this labour of love. Over the space of a decade, he has assembled his materials, returning several times to Kerala to record more, to observe, and to question. In this time, he has created an extensive archive, first revealed as a web-based production that mixed visual, audio, and text material. This was commissioned by the British Library, or rather by its Sound Archive – itself the most extensive archive of recorded music in Western Europe – and was compiled as part of a degree, an MMus, which Killius successfully completed in 2003.

Studies of religious practice were infused for much of the twentieth century by the ideas contained within the gigantic global volumes penned by the polymath Mircea Eliade. These were based on a huge amount of data, but employed some of the generalities typically required of global coverage. As we move from theories of religion to specific case studies, however, our focus must change. We must recognise the need to reflect exactly what we find during fieldwork, during extended periods working, talking, and living with ritualists and lay practitioners. At times, what we learn challenges or conflicts with received theories, not least since practice allows place for the bustle and interactions of everyday life, oftentimes resisting attempts to pigeon hole it, to define it neatly. How can we come to appreciate this specificity? Essentially, when all aspects of ritual practice can be brought together, with sound, pictures, and text. Hence the website, the precursor to this book. Again, studies of ritual overlap with anthropological concerns, where behavior, interpreted through a frame of structuralism or functionalism, downsizes or disregards the performative elements of practice: what are the ‘Drums of Affliction’ without clear and coherent analysis of instrumental techniques and structures?

Britain’s greatest ethnomusicologist, John Blacking (1928-1990), encouraged anthropologists and other ethnographers to include detailed consideration of music (and dance) in their accounts, since so many found, or asserted, that performance was integral to the practices they sought to document. This has rarely happened, and we still find accounts of ritual life that simply say: ‘And then they sang a song’. What song? How? What instruments were involved? Or, ‘and then they danced’. Who? How? What choreography was involved, and who had designed it? If the performance of ritual is important, then why do so many accounts refuse to give us the details of performance? Now, I assume that most readers of this book will want to hear more about the music involved. To some extent self-selection probably means that most readers do not need to be convinced of the inseparability of music from ritual. But, let’s go back to the mists of prehistory, to the beginnings of music. One common idea is that music evolved to support ritual, to create a sense of otherness, to help imbue the sacred with an air of something distinct from the ordinariness of daily life. While that may be fine, we might equally propose that music came first, in whatever form we care to imagine – since, after all, a baby articulates sound before controlling vocal output to create words – and that ritual evolved to support music. Suddenly, the importance, and perhaps the interpretation, of performance is transformed. Whatever, Killius has created a resource, whether as a website or a book, that brilliantly fuses music with ritual, expanding our view of ethnography and demonstrating the interconnectedness of both. And for that, he should be warmly thanked.


The 71 year old Nyerelate, a professional edaykka (drum) player and sopanam sangeetam (vocal genre) singer, explained to me his wife philosophy just three days before he died. Usually he left his home and family towards the end of the year, wandering from temple to temple, singing his devotional songs to the goddess (the devi), to return only in May of the following year, the end of the temple festival season. Nyerelate might not be a typical temple musician, but the two quotes above express the main aim of kshetram vadyam, the percussion-dominated music of Kerala in southwest India: to please the deity, and in return to receive her blessings, thus connecting the divine and human spheres.

The main purpose of this publication is to introduce the reader to the numerous and complex religious rituals and ritual music styles of the Hindu population of Kerala, southwest India. The photographs are from the Traditional Music in India project, and the texts are based on field research done in 1995-7 and 2000-2 by the author. Kshetram are the tiny Kerala temples surrounded by paddy fields, coconut and areca nut trees. The ritual experts, the Namputiri Brahmin, conduct the religious rituals, caremonies, and festivals. Professional musician communities (especially the Marar or Pooduval) accompany the rituals with a bewildering variety of musical genres and instruments (vadyam), thus creating an aesthetically pleasing atmosphere for the goddess and her devotees.

How do the temple rituals link to the ritual music? How does the music generally support and express ritual meaning, and how are both interdependent and relatively independent from each other? After investigating these questions, we shall provide an overview of the kshetram genres, their musical structure, instrumentation, and performance context. Excluded from our research are the performing art forms like kathakali and kuttiyattam, and Namputiri vedic chanting styles.

As all terms in Indian languages are explained in their transliterated forms in the glossary, we have avoided using diacritical symbols in the text. The term goddess generally stands for the main deity (who is often, but not always female) and the plural gods is for gods and goddesses.

In the first two chapters we discuss the two main ritual forms in Kerala, the kavu (shrine) and the kshetram (temple), their relationship, the meaning of ritual, and how the temple’s architectural structure relates to ritual and ritual music. The next four chapters deal with ritual music in general, and detail the three genre groups, namely, the orchestral forms, the solo, and the smaller ritualistic ensembles. The last two chapters are devoted to the musician communities and the kshetram musical instruments.

Kerala – “Gods own country”

Kerala, situated on the southernmost tip of the Indian peninsula, is as much known for its scenic splendour as for its contributions to the country’s intellectual and cultural landscape. It is a land where nature still holds her own in spite of industrialization, urban influx, and high population; where the literacy rate is the highest in the country; where people of diverse religions and political beliefs have been able to forge a common ethos, find a common identity.

(Krishna Chaitanya 1994:1)

Keralites or Malayalees (the people who speak Malayalam) like to describe their state with a slightly romantic touch; and as very visitor will eagerly confirm, they are right! This small Indian state consists of an array of Hindu castes (about 60% of the population), Muslims (20%), and Christians of various denominations (20%). Though the socio-religious structure is varied, the common language, architecture, eating habits, climatic conditions, green environment, forms to celebrate rituals and festivals, and the common numerous sophisticated musical and performance art forms have developed a strong common identity. Two reasons why the culture is quite different from other parts of the Indian subcontinent are the relative seclusion from India and the openness towards the sea. The Western Ghats mountain range forms a natural border with the Indian mainland, leaving the region open to influences via the Arabian Sea. Cultural activities had always been centred around places associated with religious ritual, places which later became the tiny Hindu temples of Kerala, mosques, and churches. The language Malayalam belongs to the Dravidian (south Indian) language group, is based on proto-Tamil, and shows a strong influence of Sanskrit.

It should be added that Kerala society is extremely fast changing. The high literacy level and fewer employment opportunities have created a huge exodus of Malayalees to the big cities of India, the Gulf states, and Western countries. The foreign cash flow into the country, for instance, has on the one hand successfully supported temple arts and festivals. Its socio-economic impact, on the other hand, destabilises the life of the traditional temple drummers and ritual expert communities.

The Traditional Music in India (TMI) project

All material used on this publication is from the project Traditional Music in India (TMI) conducted by the British Library Sound Archive and Rolf Killius, assisted by Jutta Winkler. The main objectives of the project were 1) to make high quality digital audio and visual recordings including vocal, instrumental, dance-music styles, 2) to provide detailed documentation of the performers and cultural contexts within which musical activities take place, and 3) to make special recordings to be used for publication.

In 1995-7 and 2000-2 Rolf Killius and Jutta Winkler worked in the central districts of Kerala (these are Thrichur, Palakkad, Ernakulam, and Kozhicode), where they collected and documented ritual musical styles on digital audio, video, and photographic media. Part of the project in Kerala was to collect and document musical instruments for the Horniman Museum in London. The work was done with assistance from the Archives and Research Centre for Ethnomusicology (ARCE) in Delhi.


1Hindu rituals in Kerala11
2Kshetram - The Hindu temple of Kerala35
3Kshetram Vadyam - The Ritual music of the Kerala temples41
4Chenda Melam and Panchavadyam: The orchestral forms55
5The solo ensemples: Thayampaka, Keli, Kuzhal Pattu, and Kombu Pattu69
6Anusthanavadyam - The smaller ritualistic ensembles77
7Musical instruments in Kshetram Vadyam85
8The Kshetram musician and ritual expert communities91
Conclusion and Outlook97
Kshetram Vadyam Discography115
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