Dubai: An Indian expat bride seen in a viral video beating a traditional drum - normally done by men - at her own wedding back home has taken the Internet by storm.
Shilpa Sreekumar, 24, played the chenda, a large cylindrical percussion instrument traditionally used in the south Indian state of Kerala, where her family hails from, alongside 26 male chenda and cymbal players. Chenda is mainly played by men in temple festivals and as an accompaniment for traditional dance forms such as Kathakali as well as in community gatherings and celebrations like Onam festivals.
Wearing a red silk saree and high heels and decked up in traditional jewellery, and a bunch of jasmine flowers on the mid-thigh-length braided hair with some extensions, Shilpa made waves with her exuberant chenda performance on her wedding day.
Though it was meant to be a surprise gift for the bridegroom Devanand Chelot, the video shows an equally high-spirited Devanand joining Shilpa by playing a pair of cymbals. Shilpa’s father Sreekumar Paliyath also joined in with another chenda, literally drumming up more cheer.
After the video went viral, Shilpa was featured by many local and national Indian news outlets. In her first interview with a UAE-based daily, Shilpa told Gulf News that she was very grateful to her culturally-rooted upbringing in the UAE.
“We never knew the video would go viral. We didn’t make it for that,” said Shilpa, a mechanical engineer who works as a Health, Safety, Environment and Quality (HSEQ) executive with EFS Facilities in Dubai. Currently contracted at New York University Abu Dhabi, Shilpa said the original raw video was shared online by someone who was present at the wedding. “Had we planned to make it a viral video, I would have ensured it is of good quality and gets edited properly,” she quipped.
Shilpa added that she had shared the plan to surprise Devanand only with her father, mother Rashmi and younger brother Pranav after the team members of a Kerala-based chenda troupe ‘Ponnan’s Blue Magic’ gave her the idea.
“I had performed with them in the Malayalam movie ‘Kuttanpillayude Shivarathri’ directed by Dubai-based RJ Jean Markose. When I invited them for the wedding, they said we should perform and surprise Devanand and everyone including my relatives who have not seen me perform live.”
However, when Shilpa began beating the drums like a veteran percussionist - who she is, with 12 years of practice - Devanand could not just sit back and watch.
“I couldn’t control myself. I was overjoyed to see her do what she loves to do. I just wanted to join the fun,” said Devanand, 30, who works as head of engineering with a construction firm in Dubai.
Seeing them, Sreekumar, who has also been performing chenda for several years, also jumped in. Shilpa said she had not expected either her groom or her father to join.
“It was a surprise to me but we all thoroughly enjoyed it and what was planned for a minute or so went on for six or seven minutes. Initially, I was a bit nervous about performing in the bridal getup in saree and high heels and I was concerned if some elders would not appreciate it. But my mother, who has been the pillar of my moral support, gave me the courage to do what I love the most and enjoy on my special day. I was so happy,” Shilpa said.
The bride added that she was grateful for all the positive comments and blessings that she received from known and unknown people. Prominent personalities such as Indian politician and author Shashi Tharoor and Sanjoy K Roy were among those who appreciated her. Many praised her for breaking barriers and highlighting the importance of culture.
A former student of The Indian High School, Dubai and BITS Pilani, Dubai Campus, Shilpa said whatever she is today has been shaped by the UAE.
“People may not have thought that I would get the opportunity to learn chenda in the UAE. But I know I got to learn it only because I was in the UAE. I don’t think I would have become like this had I not been living there,” said Shilpa, who is scheduled to return to the UAE in a few days.
Preserving cultural heritage
Praising the UAE for allowing its diverse population to preserve their cultural heritage, Shilpa saluted the tolerant society and its leaders. “The UAE gives us a lot of opportunities to nurture our creative talents. We can celebrate all the festivals of all the countries and religions here. Our Onam celebrations go on for months. In fact, we had performed at around 80 venues last year. About 60 were for Onam celebrations. I hardly got time to do shopping before I flew down to Kerala for the wedding,” she said.
She pointed out that her parents never discouraged her from doing what she loves to do.
“Chenda is usually played by men and mechanical engineering is also a male-dominant stream. But my parents always said it is the passion and effort that you put in that make you perfect in anything, not your gender. I am lucky that my parents never set any barriers. They also felt secure about me performing in huge crowds in the UAE.”
Missing all-women troupe
Sreekumar, director of a shipping company, said he had enrolled Shilpa for chenda classes after seeing her interest in toy drums when she was a child. When she was 12, Shilpa started learning chenda along with her father, her biggest inspiration, and brother, her “critic and partner-in-crime”, by practicing on stones using thick sticks.
Eventually, she started using the real chenda and its sticks and became the youngest member of the first female-only chenda troupe in the UAE under the now-bisbanded community group Dubai Art Lovers’ Association (DALA).
“We had performed at many venues across the UAE. But our team got disbanded after my seniors either left for higher studies or got married. I hope my video will somehow help us get back the ladies-only team as performing with only girls and ladies is a different level of fun. I hope more women do find out their passion and work towards it. If my video helps someone, it would mean a lot to me. Now, I am the only female member performing in my current team ‘Seek Melam UAE’,” said Shilpa.
Sreekumar and Pranav are also members of the troupe. The trio have performed at events celebrating the UAE National Day, India’s Republic Day and at various community events and festivals. They have also been performing at an annual replica of Thrissur Pooram, the famed temple festival of Kerala, in Dubai.
Shilpa - believed to be the only female chenda performer in the UAE who can perform classical, non-classical and fusion forms of chenda - said she was also immensely grateful to her chenda teachers, particularly, Shyju Kannur.
A trained dancer, Shilpa had first met Devanand, who is also a dancer, at a dance event in Dubai. They got engaged a year ago and have been sharing their dance videos on social media. Their wedding was held at the famous Guruvayur Temple in Kerala on December 25 and the chenda performance took place at a nearby hotel soon after the couple solemnised the marriage at the temple.