In various temples in Kerala, a singer stands next to the steps that lead from the sanctum (this flight of steps is called the ‘sopanam’) and sings during the time of various pujas. This music is called sopanasangeetham. The lyrics of the songs are praises of the deity, either god or goddess, in the sanctum. The songs are in various languages like Sanskrit, Malayalam, Tamil, Manipravalam which is a mixture of Sanskrit and Malayalam. The songs are usually written by the singers themselves, or people of the neighbourhood who have some literary ability. The tunes are reflective of the songs heard in the village or neighbouring places outside the temple, usually a mixture of these. (The various arguments on this branch of music are detailed in the ‘Kerala Sangeetham Kettatum Kelkendatum’ published by the Kerala Sahitya Akademi). Sopanasangeetham is old as the establishment of the tantric way of worship in the Kerala temples. The point to note is that this is before Carnatic music became popular here. We have to accept that temple rituals that follow the tantric rites, also involved such singing accompanied by a handheld instrument as part of the ritual. While it is not clear when and how the caste of brahmins originated in India, there is no doubt that brahmins came to Kerala from outside. We could accept that their advent coincides with the establishment of temples as we know them today and that of sopanasangeetham. This would be about the eight century.
The percussion instrument called Idakka is played as an accompaniment to the singing before the sanctum. Therefore sopanasangeetham is also called ‘kottippadiseva’. The Sanskrit word ‘Dhakka’ became idakka in Malayalam by common use following the linguistic rule of swarasamvritam. Idakka is a more developed and decorated form of the instrument used by the adivasis of Kerala known as the ‘thudi’.
The term ‘Ashtapadi’ is used for a collection of twenty four songs written in Sanskrit by the poet Jayadeva who was born in the Kenduli village near Puri in Orissa. It is believed by many of the living practitioners of this form of music that these songs reached Kerala some time between the 12th and 14th centuries, brought here by Chaitanya Mahaprabhu who was a disciple of Jayadeva and his companions. The singers of Kerala temples learnt these songs from them and started using them for their ritual singing. Evidently Gitagovindam was not written for use in Kerala temples. After food is offered to the god or goddess in the sanctum, the left-overs are taken out, the sanctum is cleaned and the door is shut for a puja called the Prasannapuja. During this puja when the doors of the sanctum remain shut and then again when the doors of the sanctum are closed just before deeparadhana kottippadiseva takes place. Other occasions are to put the god or goddess to sleep at night during the festival days and to waken them in the morning. This type of singing is usual in the Kalamezhuthu pattu which is held in the temples in Valluvanad. Since the singing that is known as sopanasangeetham is now performed outside temples as well, it is called just ‘kottippadal’.
Any person, man or woman, who can sing and play the idakka, and who does not eat non-vegetarian food, and is clean, can sing in front of the sanctum. When you play the idakka and sing before the sanctum, you have to sing about the deity in the sanctum. But in other places, the songs chosen can be about any subject and using any suitable tune.
This music form was intended to be sung for a short while, while the doors of the sanctum were shut and the deity was not visible. The aim was to fill the ears of the worshippers before the doorway with devotional songs so that their attention did not wander while their eyes had nothing to look at. For a man to stand before the sanctum and sing without fulfilling this basic duty would be a vain endeavour and would have the opposite effect. For this only a person of great personal goodness, and devotion would be entitled to fulfil that duty. Shadkala Govinda Marar was definitely not a man who sang at temples to the accompaniment of the idakka. He reached the court of Swati Tirunal, singing in the Carnatic tradition. And he sang the ashtapadi which did not originate in Kerala at all. One can see that he used the tanpura which underlines the Carnatic connection. People who try to limit the practice of this art form by caste pretend not to see these facts in their selfish motives. Njeralath Kalasramam has taken up the onerous task of rescuing this art form from the hands of those who know neither geography nor history. Njeralath Rama Poduval had taken this art form from the confines of the temple walls and popularised it outside. He sang with the same devotion whether he was within the temple premises or outside and thus breathed new life into this form. And so this art became a new devotion as well as a means of livelihood for a number of people.