Panchavadyam is an orchestra typical of Kerala. It consists of five instruments: kombu, edakka, thimila, ilathalam and maddalam (pancha – five, vadyam - orchestra) Panchavadyam is played during temple festivals like pooram, vela etc.
Thatham Cha Vithatham Chaiva
Ghanam Sushira Meva Cha
Gaanamaananda Nritham Cha
The four lines define Panchavadyam. The basic rule is to use instruments in the category of thatham, vithatham, ghnanam (non-drum) amd sushiram (wind instrument). Traditionally, five instruments like chenda, kurumkuzhal, thimila, edakka, damanam were played. Besides, it is seen that some texts include veena, venu, mridangam, sanku, padahang also in the definition of Panchavadyam. Today, more than five instruments are played. Edakka, thimila and maddalam are commonly used. In addition to that, sanku and ilathalam or kombu and ilathalam are used in some places. Thimila, edakka and maddalam are charma instruments; kombu and sanku are sushira instruments, while ilathalam is a ghana instrument. Six different types of music blend together to create musical delight, ie. Panchavadyam.
In Panchavadyam there is no limit to the number of performers. But there are certain calculations as to the number of instruments to be played. The number of thimila is double that of maddalam plus one more, while kombu equals the number of thimila, the same number of ilathalam is required. For a short Panchavadyam, one edakka may be played. For a large Panchavadyam, two edakkas are played. However, one sanku (conch) would do. In rare cases one may see many conchs being blown.
The thimila artiste and the maddalam artiste stand face to face while presenting Panchavadyam. The expert or leader among the thimila players stands in the middle. Likewise, the maddalam expert. Ilathalam artistes stand behind the thimila artistes. The kombu artistes stand behind the maddalam players. The sanku (conch) blowers position on the right hand side of the edakka players who are on the right side. This is a traditional rule. But these positions change when Panchavadyam is performed on stage or in a procession. It is also not rare to see all of them performing in a row.
It is assumed that this art form originated in today’s Eranakulam. There were a lot of thimila artistes in places like Ramamangalam, Perumballi, Keezhilam, Chottanikkara, Cheranellur, Kaladi, Nayathodu, Chengamanad. Later, it extended to Thrissur and Palakkad districts.
In the 1920s maddalam vidwan Thiruvilwamala Venkiteswar Iyer (Venkitachan Swamy), Panchavadya expert Annamada Achutha Marar, thimila vidwan Chengamanad vidwan Sekhara Kurup made attempts at refining and improving the art form. In the period 1920-1930, Venkitachan Swamy coming to the Thrissur pooram madom had the maddalam tied to his waist (in the past the maddalam was played hanging it on one’s neck). This was a shocking sight to the onlookers. Though there was a lot of opposition, it was later accepted. With many individuals taking interest, Panchavadyam no longer was confined to temples and it attained a unique status as a form of distinct art.