Chenda is a majestic instrument widely used in Kerala. There is an ancient saying that all other 18 vadayas (instruments) come under Chenda. The loud and rigid sound of chenda makes it one of the rare instruments in this world. Chendamelam or the chenda percussion ensemble has an important place among the various percussion art forms of Kerala like Pandi, Panchari, Dhruvam, Adantha, Anjadantha, Chemba, Chembada and Tripuda. Of them, Pandi and Panchari are the most popular. Thayambaka is played on both Chenda and Mizhavu. Chenda is used in art forms like Kathakali, Keli and Melam and for temple rituals.
At some point of time in the past, Chenda was used in Panchavadyam too. Chendamelam is unavoidable in almost all festivals in the state. Today, it is also used for public campaign programmes.
Chenda is an Anavadha Vadya or Percussion Instrument. Its Sanskrit name is Dindimam. The cylindrical wooden part of the instrument is made of jackfruit tree wood and is also made using White teak wood, Cassia fistula wood and Sugar palm wood. The one carved out from the core of the jackfruit tree is considered special. The cylindrical portion is carved out of the trunk and the skins of cow and buffalo are jointly fastened at the ends. This requires expertise and the process is called "vattam maadal" in Malayalam. The left and right sides (edanthala and valanthala) of this drum produce two different sounds. The musical notes can be adjusted with the strings that hold the two sides together.
The right head is made by pasting four or five skins pasted in layers. The edanthala (left side) is the side that is actually beaten and the valanthala (right side) is used to set rhythm. The valanthala is regarded as devavadyam (divine) and edanthala as asuravadyam (demonic). The valanthala is played for temple rituals and is also played during Kathakali portions dealing with divinity. Edanthala is played for other ensembles.
The chenda is played by suspending it from the left shoulder of the performer with the help of a cloth band. It is played either by using the left hand and a stick on the right hand or by using sticks in both hands. For playing thayambaka, the stick is used only in one hand. For panchari and pandi, the left head is played with a stick and right head for setting rhythm. On some occasions, left head is played with hand and right head with stick.
Stick is used on both heads for Kathakali performances. (The Kathakali chenda is big in size than a normal chenda). The usual playing is with stick on right hand and the front half of the left palm. The "tha", "dhim", "thom" and "ntha" sounds of Mridangam and Madhalam can be produced on chenda with a slight difference. The sounds "dhim", "tham", are made by playing with the palm, "na" by striking the stick on the head edge and "dhim" by striking on the middle.