Monday, March 15, 2010

All praise is due to Allah

Duff Muttu, a Muslim art form, is popular in the Malabar region of Kerala. The songs are sung in honour of Allah

Photo: Koya Kappad

By Shevlin Sebastian

One day in 2008 tabla maestro Zakir Hussain invited Koya Kappad to perform with his Duff Muttu troupe at his father, the legendary Alla Rakha’s eighth death anniversary function. So Koya and his singers travelled to Mumbai from Kappad, 28 kilometres from Kozhikode.

Koya led the singing, which is accompanied by powerful beats on the Duff, a percussion instrument.

When the programme was over, an emotional Zakir Hussain hugged and kissed Koya. “Zakir Saab told me that this art form was a gift from Allah and I should continue to uphold it,” says Koya. “He also mentioned that he had never heard of Duff Muttu till we played before him.”

The audience was also enamoured. There were many Malayalis who came up after the performance and asked the meaning of several lines of the songs. “I realised that they had really appreciated our recital,” he says. “It was one of the best experiences of my life.”

Duff Muttu is a Muslim art form, which originated in Medina, Saudi Arabia several centuries ago. “The songs, sung in Arabic, are mostly in praise of Allah,” says Koya. Most of the poems are Sufi in origin. “We use the songs written by Sheikh Rifayi, a great Sufi sage, who lived around eight hundred years ago,” he says.

According to Koya, Sufi singers from Arabia brought the Duff Muttu to the Lakshadweep Islands and from there it reached the Malabar region in Kerala, where it is very popular among the Muslims. It is performed during religious rituals, as well as festivals and weddings.

Koya’s family has been propagating the Duff Muttu since 1855. “I am the fourth generation,” he says, with a proud smile. But mainstream acceptance occurred thanks to Koya’s father, the venerable 90-year-old Ustad Ahmed Kutty Musalier who performed in public for the first time in 1977.

Because of his tireless efforts to popularise the art, Ahmed Kutty was bestowed with the Kerala Sangeet Natak Akademi Award as well as a National Integration Award from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1983.

The father’s passion for the art has been passed to the son. Koya says that when he sings, he experiences an affinity to God. “There are many times when I feel depressed,” he says. “But when I sing, tears of joy come to my eyes.”

On a hot summer afternoon, Koya is listening to a group of students as they go through a rehearsal at the Madrasthul Muhammadiya school in Kozhikode. Sitting on benches, placed around the sides of the classroom, are several students who are watching the performance. The Duff Muttu singers have come to the city to take part in ‘Keraloltsavam’ – a state-level youth festival competition.

Ten boys stand in a semi-circle. They are wearing a white juba and mundu, and a headgear (thalapavu). Soon, a youngster at one end starts singing. This is followed by quick beats on the Duff. Soon, the boys bend their heads and roll their waists.

The song rises to a crescendo. The beats, caused by hard thumps of the hand, rock the room. The audience listens in rapt silence, as a plaintive cry to Allah is heard. Koya is all concentration: his eyes are closed.

When the song is over there is sustained clapping: the onlookers admire the heartfelt singing. But Koya does not see the excellence. Instead he points out the mistakes, but does so in a gentle voice.

Among the participants is A. Anees, 15, who is a student of the C.H. Memorial Higher Secondary School at Kannur. One day there was an announcement in school that those who are interested to play the Duff Muttu could go to the music room.

“I had always been interested in this art form,” he says. “So I volunteered. Now I am keen to take this up as a career.”

It is becoming easier now. The mainstream public is becoming increasingly aware of this art form. At close quarters, the duff is an unusual instrument. It has a thickness of 2” and a width of 8”. It is made of goatskin. The skin is dried out and stretched tightly over a wooden base.

“These instruments have been passed down from generation to generation,” says Koya. “We have about 30.” A performer usually holds the instrument in his left hand, and uses the right hand to bang on the surface, to create a deep and rhythmic beat.

Today, Koya’s 40-member Kappad Kala Kendram performs throughout Kerala. In the last three years, they have also performed on the weekends for the government-initiated cultural programme, ‘Utsavam’ aimed at tourists. “We have sung at Kozhikode, Bekal, Mallapuram, Tirur, and Kapad,” says Koya. “The response has been very positive.”

Yes, indeed, listening to a Duff Muttu performance makes an audience feel positive towards the performers, as well as God. The reason is simple: the rhythmic chants and beats are mesmerising.

(The New Indian Express, Chennai)

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