Watching Chakyar Koothu at the Ernakulathappan Temple in Ernakulam was a treat. The major instruments that accompanied the performance of this traditional art form were mizhavu and ilatalam. The presiding deity here is Lord Siva, who is in Gaurisankara form. The Lingam in the sanctum sanctorum is swayambu (worshipped by Arjuna as Kirthamurty).
Chakyar Koothu is performed as a solo narrative act and the performer wears a distinct headgear resembling the snake’s hood to signify that the story is being told by Anantha, the thousand-headed serpent. Koothambalam is the place where it is performed.
After the mizhavu player performs Mizhavanakkal to announce the performance, the Chakyar recites the story based on ‘Champu Prabandha,’ which is a combination of prose and poetry.
While members of the Chakyar community are the traditional performers of this art form, the Ambalavasi Nambiars are the mizhavu players.
Mizhavu is said to be one of the largest percussion instruments belonging to this region. Apart from Chakyar Koothu, it is the main accompanying instrument in Koodiyattom and Nangiyar Koothu. References to Koodiyattom and Chakyar Koothu are found in ancient Sangam literature and also in the epigraphs belonging to the Pallava, Chera and Chola periods.
Mizhavu or mizhav is a large pot with its mouth tightly covered with hide. Earlier, it was made of clay, but now bronze or copper is used as these give it more resonance.
The shell of the instrument is made first after which the neck and the upper body are fixed as separate portions. A hole is made in the side of the body in order to get a proper tone. The principles of temple architecture and iconography are followed while making the mizhavu.
Since it is considered a sacred instrument, the newly made ones are initiated into the world of music through a ritual called upanayanam along with the chanting of slokas. This is because Koodiyattam is considered Chakshush Yagnaand mizhavu is its main accompanying instrument.
The mizhuvu is kept on a peetam with kolam with grains and darbha grass spread over it. After praying to Lord Ganapati, consecration with holy water is done. Rituals like Nandi and Bhuta Visodhana are performed before invoking Lord Nandikeswara to come and reside in it.
The top of the mizhavu is covered with pattu vastram after which homa is performed followed by the performance of the eight samskara rituals. Then the instrument is adorned with the sacred thread. Puja is done, naivedya offered followed by arati. . After this ceremony, the main priest initiates the playing and the mizhavu artiste covers the mouth of the instrument with the skin and ties it tightly with cotton strings and then begins playing.
At the Mridanga Saileswari temple in Muzhakunnu, Kannur district there is the Mizhavu Bhagavathy — goddess in the shape of mizhavu.
The Ambalavasi Nambiar community perform inside the Koothambalams, a place inside Hindu temples specifically designed for these arts. Mizhavu is played only with hands; sticks are not used. The palm and fingers of both the hands are used for playing this instrument. The mizhavu artiste uses the full hand technique for drumming. The half metallic beats are typical of this instrument. In the past, different beats were played, but now only eight exist, including the Chempata, Atanta, Eka and Triputa.
Considered a deva vadyam meant only for religious performances, it is not put down on the ground and is kept in a cage of wooden slats.
Mizhavu has been traditionally played by male percussionists and the instrument is regarded as a Brahmacharya. For Koodiyattam, mizhavu, kuzhitalam, kurumkuzhal, edakka and sanku are the traditional accompanying instruments. The mizhavu complements the movements of the actor.
Today, there are no restrictions and anyone can play the instrument, which is also performed solo or is featured in the mizhavu thyaambaka, where it is played by a group of performers. It is also played along with Idakkya in the mizhavu melam.