Chengannur Raman Pillai (1886–1980) was one of the prominent masters who enriched the southern school of Kathakali known as the ‘Kaplingadan Sampradayam’. The school was named after the great eighteenth century master, Kaplingattu Narayanan Namboodiri, who was responsible for evolving a style that emphasised bhavabhinaya or facial expressions. One of Chengannur’s disciples, Madavoor Vasudevan Nair (1929–2018), went on to serve as the last link of the style well into the 21st century.
In this interview with V. Kaladharan, Vasudevan Nair recalls his days as a student and a young performer showing great promise before emerging as the final word on the Kaplingadan style. His focus on dramatics and reliance on dashes of realism were in stark contrast to the more stylised Kalluvazhi School of central Kerala.
V. Kaladharan is a senior art critic and author. He served Kerala Kalamandalam for three decades before retiring as its superintendent in 2013.
V. Kaladharan (VK): How were you initiated into Kathakali?
Madavoor Vasudevan Nair (MVN): I was born in the village of Madavoor. It has two big temples dedicated to Shiva and Devi (the Mother Goddess). The annual festivals in these temples included Kathakali performances that lasted for four or five days. Watching all these performances piqued my interest in Kathakali.
My first guru was Madavoor Parameswaran Pillai. He was popularly known as Kochaasan (young master) and was a great scholar. My elder brother enrolled me in his kalari (training centre). They followed a gurukula system (an ancient form of education where the student lived with the guru and his family and learned from him) there. During the three years that I stayed there I could visit my family only on rare occasions, that too only when my guru accompanied me.
VK: How long did you train under Kochaasan?
MVN: I trained under him for three years. In the first year—actually, six months after I joined—I had my anangettam (debut performance). I performed two roles—Bhanumati and Uttaran[i]—in the play Uttaraswayamvaram.
For my anyaarambham (performance that comes just after the debut) the next day, I performed the role of Krishna in Duryadhanavadham.
During the three years I trained under Kochaasan, I did both junior and middle-rung roles. I even did major roles like Krishna in Rajasooyam, where the actor has to perform kalaasham (pure dance). Whatever my guru taught me, I would carry out to the letter on stage.
The entirety of my first year was spent in performing a lot, shuttling between venues and cooperating with kaliyogams (Kathakali collectives with their own troupe of artistes).
Then, we (my family and I) thought of having me train under the legendary Chengannur (Chengannur Raman Pillai). It was a huge task to get him to agree to take me on as his student. My brother (Divakaran Nair) took me to the guru’s house in Chengannur. He advised me to join his classes in a village called Thuvvara. He had agreed to teach the son of a rich man called Nedumpurathu Pappu Kurup. There were two other boys in the class as well. When the letter asking me to join the classes came, I set off immediately in the company of my brother. It had already been a week since the classes had begun. One of the boys was the son of a local shop owner. My brother gave the shop owner Rs 40 towards my food expenses—a big sum in those days!
Within two weeks, my guru and I grew very close to each other. I was always by his side. When he left Thuvvara, he took me back to his house. Thereafter I was with him for 12 years—learning and performing.
VK: Which year did you join him, do you remember?
MVN: I was born in 1929. I joined Chengannur Asan as his student when I was sixteen years old. So it must have been about 1943 or so.
VK: What did Chengannur Asan teach you?
MVN: We started with the Kottayam plays (four plays written in the early 18th century by a raja of the Malabar province). I perfected the roles of Arjuna, Matali, Indran, Urvashi, etc. Asan would sit there, and sing, keeping the rhythm with a stick. That was how we learned. He never sang on stage. But when he taught us, he would sing.
VK: How different was what you learned under him and what you subsequently performed on stage?
MVN: There was not much difference in the beginning. But when an artiste evolves and finds his own way, he incorporates influences from others’ performances. The trick is to not blindly imitate others. Be inspired by great performances, but modify whatever you take and make it your own.
VK: So, talam (the metrical measurement of rhythm) has always remained the same, but how has kalam (speed of the rhythmic cycle) changed over time?
MVN: Now everyone uses the randam kalam (Middle order. The onnam kalam or first order is the slowest. It is followed by the middle order and the rapid order).[ii] The onnam kalam that is used now is really much slower! I have always felt that such a system is suitable for verses like ‘Salajjoham’ (a song sung by Arjuna in the play Kalakeya Vadham or The Killing of Kalakeya). The speed we use is slightly higher than the onnam kalam and slightly lower than the randam kalam. We can make modifications like that.
VK: Aren’t there shades of difference even within the southern style of Kathakali? Say, Mathur, Thakazhi, Keerikkad…
MVN: They’re all primarily the same. We can generally classify these variations under the Thakazhi style.
VK: Which role—Udbhavam Ravana or Narakasuran—is more important in the Kaplingadan style of Kathakali?
MVN: I would say the character of Narakasuran is more important than Udbhavam Ravana in any school of Kathakali. Udbhavam Ravana is basically a second-rung character. It gained popularity because of the slow and detailed choreography we created for the role. This shows the hero doing penance or tapassattam. With a tapering rhythmic structure that gains momentum with support from chenda and maddalam (types of drums), it has attained importance in Kathakali, no doubt.
VK: Didn’t you perform female characters as well?
MVN: Yes, I had to, primarily because there were not enough female performers. I performed a lot of female roles in my thirties—opposite stalwarts like Krishnan Nair, Chengannur Asan and Mankulam Vishnu Namboodiri. This went on for about seven or eight years.
VK: Did continuously performing female roles affect your performance when you returned to male roles?
MVN: No, no. Even when I was performing female roles, I did many male characters too. When Mankulam was not available, I acted out the roles of Nalan, Kachan, etc. So I performed both male and female characters. Sometimes, on a single day, I would perform them one after the other. But, when compared to the female roles that Kudamaloor (Kudamaloor Karunakaran Nair) or Kottakal Shivaraman performed, my heroines didn’t have the same lasya (grace). The audience liked my strong female characters, such as Sairandri, Pootana, Lalitha, etc.
VK: In the southern style of Kathakali, you are particular about the whole story being covered in a play, right?
MVN: Yes, we give equal emphasis to both the story and the play.
VK: How did the stylistic variations within the southern school disappear?
MVN: Mainly because of the absence of kalaris.
MVN: Kalaris in the early 20th century did not fare well for various reasons. Take the case of Kerala Kalamandalam. The poet (Vallathol Narayana Menon, who established Kerala Kalamandalam) had to seek royal patronage for the continued maintenance of his kalari. Maintaining a kalari is very expensive. Also, bringing together the artistes is a very difficult task. They are not educated and have no knowledge about the ways of the world; they only have their art. So, the new kalaris don’t last very long. Institutions like Kalamandalam have survived only because they had governmental support. Kottakkal (Kathakali academy run by Arya Vaidya Shala) also survived because it had financial backing. On the contrary, take the case of Irinjalakkuda (Unnayi Warrier Smaraka Kalanilayam, Irinjalakkuda); just Unnayi Warrier’s[v] name should have been enough for it to survive, but it is struggling financially now.
VK: Is the lokadharmi style of acting (realistic acting style) important in the southern school of Kathakali?
MVN: If you use the lokadharmi method in appropriate places, I think it improves the presentation, regardless of the role you are playing. The actor can use the lokadharmi style when he is acting out the verse, unaccompanied by vocals. This helps the audience appreciate the part. Not everyone is knowledgeable in Kathakali parlance. So, the lokadharmi method helps the audience understand and appreciate the nuances of the character. But sometimes performers overuse this technique. That is a risk. The best way is to use it judiciously so that even laymen understand the performance.
VK: One of the most important roles that you have played is that of Bana (the demon Bansura in the play Banayudham or The Killing of Bana). Chengannur Asan’s Bana was also famous. Did you make any modifications when you performed it?
MVN: I performed many kathi roles even when he (Chengannur Asan) was alive. Asan’s Bana was one of a kind. He excelled in the roles of Bana and Jarasandhan. He used to say that whatever he did he owed to his master Thakazhi (Thakazhi Ayyappan Pillai). Generally, I followed Asan’s style in playing these characters, but I also improvised. The artiste has that freedom, provided that the core of the story is not disturbed.
VK: Does too much attam (recapitulative plots) make the character go off-track?
MVN: Definitely. Plots should be edited to avoid repeating themes. Also, they must suit the situation of the story.
VK: What would have been the state of the Kaplingadan style or the southern school, had Kalamandalam not provided courses for its training (in 1968)?
MVN: I have to say, it would have been pathetic. In a way, it is our greatest fortune that an institution like Kalamandalam offers training in the southern school of Kathakali. In the beginning, Sivasankaran (Mankulam Sivasankaran) trained students in the northern school of Kathakali. At the time, Kalamandalam had provisions to appoint two teachers from both the northern and southern styles of Kathakali. When Sivasankaran left, I was invited to join the faculty. There were four boys in my class. I started training them in the southern style. They did not like it. So it was arranged that from the following year, I would have my own class, training students in the southern style while the other class would follow the northern style. Accordingly, we advertised for students seeking training in the southern school of Kathakali. Three boys were finally admitted. They were all brilliant and performed well. That was how the southern kalari was set up in Kalamamdalam. It came to be called thekkan (southern) kalari. Throughout the year, the students trained with only my rhythmic beats accompanying them. We trained with vocals and percussion only when it was time for their debut. What they learned was the pure, uncorrupted form of the southern school. I am proud that we could at least pave the way for the southern style to survive.
VK: Kalamandalam is situated in north Kerala, where the northern style or Kalluvazhi School is prominent. Do you think that this will somehow influence the southern school or dilute it?
MVN: It is possible. I have already noticed some dilution of the Kaplingadan style, with students borrowing postures and leg movements from the northerners.
There is a new generation coming up. They can keep the style intact if they don’t give in to such influences.
VK: You played a significant role in standardising the Kaplingadan style. Do you think it will fare well in the future?
MVN: It should. I keep advising the students not to be swayed by other styles and maintain stylistic purity as far as possible.
VK: Thank you.
(Translated by Sreevalsan Thiyyadi.)
[i] Two characters in the Kathakali play Uttaraswayamvaram. Bhanumati is the wife of Duryodhana and Uttaran is a ladies’ man in the royal court.
[ii] Generally, rhythmic cycles in the first order are used to express sentiments of valour while the middle order is used to express normal activities. Rhythmic cycles in the rapid order are used to express emotions such as anger.
[iii] Pacha, literally meaning ‘green’, implies that the character is noble and gentle. Actors playing such roles paint their faces green.
[iv] Kathi, literally meaning knife, is suggestive of proud, aggressive and unrighteous characters—for example, the demon king Ravana. Such characters are portrayed with red as the predominant colour against a green background.
[v] A scholar, poet and a dramatist who lived in 18th century Kerala. He made significant contributions to Kathakali.