Even in the 21st century, an Indian bride is often expected to play coy, keep her head down, and gracefully glide about in her saree on her wedding day.
But Shilpa Sreekumar, a 24-year-old dancer, actress, and percussionist from Kerala, is not one to "sit still" – in her own words. She stole the show at her wedding with a high-voltage chenda (a cylindrical percussion instrument) performance, leaving not just the guests, but the internet in awe.
"The wedding entry performance was supposed to be a surprise for my groom Devanand. But instead, I was the one who was left surprised by the overwhelming response I received," Shilpa tells The Quint.
Settled in Dubai, Shilpa works in facilities management at the New York University, Abu Dhabi. A mechanical engineering graduate, Shilpa says chenda has been her happy place for years. "When I play the rhythmic beats of a chenda and the audience cheers me on, I completely lose myself in it," says the artiste, who has also acted in a Malayalam movie.
A Performer for 12 Years
Shilpa's journey to becoming a prodigy in chenda – a percussion instrument that weighs nearly 15 kg and is traditionally played at temple events by men – has been quite an eventful one.
A Malayali, Shilpa has lived in Dubai with her parents for years. She was in Class 7 when she first learned chenda in Dubai. "I was young, so I didn't know much about it. My parents asked me to give it a shot and continue if I'm interested. Because I loved dancing, the rhythm really got me into it," she tells The Quint.
About 12 years ago, the Gulf Cooperation Council's first all-women shinkari melam team was formed; as they were looking for women to join, they came across a young Shilpa, who later performed with them for nearly four years.
Shinkari melam is a variety of chenda melam (performance), but is rarely performed at temples. Its rhythms vary from the classical forms, and it has a more sing-song approach.
"Once I became part of the team, I started learning other forms of chenda melams, like chembada and panjari melams. And right now, I perform with a group called Seek Shinkari Melam. We perform every week in Dubai, and the proceeds go to charity," she says.
In 2018, Shilpa acted in a Malayalam movie called Kuttanpillayude Sivarathri, which has a widely popular scene of her performing chenda melam.
"The auditions for the role were held in Dubai, as the director of the movie, Jean Markose, is based out of here. After many rounds of auditions, I got the role. Later, he got to know I'm a chenda performer, so he included me in that scene," she adds.
'A Male-Dominated Field, but…'
Though chenda performances are vastly male-dominated, Shilpa says her parents never made her feel like she couldn't do it. "They've always pushed me to do something if I'm interested in it. They've never created such a barrier in my mind."
"Even people you're performing with should not make you feel that way. They've never treated me like I'm a woman, or someone who can't do it. My teacher, Shyju, is also very supportive."Shilpa Sreekumar
The challenge, however, is to carry the weight of the chenda for hours, she says. "As far as I'm concerned, I can't stay still while performing – when the audience is jumping, I'll also jump along. But this could have physical impacts. You need to wear the instrument right and follow the right posture."
She recalls that the teacher who taught her as a child tells her even today that he wasn't sure if she could lift the instrument and keep playing. "But he's seen me grow over the years. He never expected me to turn out this way."
Inspiring the Men in Her life
As chenda is an integral part of her life, Shilpa thought it would be fitting to give a performance at her wedding at Kerala's Guruvayur Temple. She performed alongside a chenda group called Ponnan's Blue Magic Team based in Thrissur.
"I had performed with the group a few years ago and had invited them to the wedding. But they insisted that I should perform with them. I wasn't sure I could do it in a saree!"
In a viral video of the performance, Shilpa's husband Devanand Chelot and her father Sreekumar Paliyath are seen joining her.
"Devanand is excited about learning chenda. He couldn't just stand there while we were all performing, so he joined too," she chuckles.
Years ago, Shilpa got her father into chenda as well. "He was always so interested in learning, but he never got the chance to. But after I started performing, he began studying too."
Shilpa performs regularly in Dubai. During Onam, however, she performs almost 5-6 times a week. "My most memorable performance, hands down, will now be my wedding," she says.