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Immense Stage Presence

Excerpts from an interview with Kalamandalam MPS Namboothiri by Shridhar Gopalakrishnan

When Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair was on Stage, Nothing else Mattered

MPS Namboothiri: We can see two schools of acting in modern Kathakali dance-theatre, the first one is the Kunchu Nair school and the other is the Krishnan Nair school. A person in their mid-fifties today might have started watching performances of masters like Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair and Krishnan Nair only after they were already past the peak of their careers. But when you go back to the period spanning the three decades from the 1950s through the 1970s, you can see a clear divide among Kathakali aficionados—there were those who preferred the Kunchu Nair Asan (guru) style and those who were partial to Krishnan Nair Asan’s style.

According to Kunchu Nair [1908–81, disciple of Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon, and later principal of Kerala Kalamandalam], the lead role of a play has to maintain the main (sthayi) ‘bhava’ of the play. For example, the character of Dharmaputra in Kirmeera Vadham has a well-defined ‘bhava’. Kunchu Nair was very stubborn about maintaining this quality of the character. He was not ready for any compromise in this respect. However, even great fans of the Kunchu Nair school used to agree on one thing, when Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair was on stage, nothing else mattered. After Krishnan Nair Asan, Kalamandalam Gopi is the one blessed with the qualities that Krishnan Nair had in abundance.

Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair had amazing stage presence. He was fortunate to have many qualities that any dancer or actor would love to acquire. Owing to personal reasons, Krishnan Nair had shifted his base from Kalamandalam to Thripunithura and he continued to contribute to Kathakali from there.

Let me take the debate to another level. Olappamanna Mana and Thoppil Kaliyogam were the centres of two different Kathakali schools. Thoppil Kaliyogam was in southern Kerala and Olappamanna was in the north. Thoppil Kaliyogam has produced great actors like Chengannur Raman Pillai. But, unfortunately the school did not come to be housed in an institution like Kerala Kalamandalam and hence it divided into many branches like the ‘Mankulam School’ and the ‘Chengannur School’. That is why the music of Cherthala Kuttappa Kurup or Thakazhi Kuttan Pillai did not achieve the continuity that the Kalamandalam Neelakantan Nambeesan school enjoyed in Kerala. In short, through the Kerala Kalamandalam, the school of Pattikkanthodi Ravunni Menon has become the predominant Kathakali school of the state.

In this context, we should revisit Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, who was basically trained in the northern school and then lived the rest of his artistic life in southern Kerala. His autobiography Ente Jeevitham: Arangilum Aniyarayilum (‘My Life, On-stage and Backstage’), says a lot about the struggles he went through as an actor. His Guru, Chandu Panikker Asan, blessed him by saying that he would be like butter in buttermilk, always at the top. That is exactly what happened with him. If Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair was on stage, everyone else became insignificant. For any Kathakali student, it is a challenge to learn from his life. Just because you are blessed with good features, it does not mean you will become a Krishnan Nair. No one should carry that wrong notion.

It would be wholly wrong to state that Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair was playing to the gallery. A totally dedicated artiste like him can’t fly low, I believe. He has written Nala Charitam Attaprakaram (‘performance manual’) and many of the things written in this only he could perform. For example, he wants everyone to enact the sloka that starts with the line, ‘Saundaryam, sukumarata, madhurita, kantirmanoharita, srimatam, mahimeti,’ when Nala is describing Damayanthi’s beauty. Krishnan Nair Asan could do justice to each word but we can’t expect everyone to act ‘saundaryam’ and ‘sukumarata’ differently. I was fortunate to see how beautifully he performed this sloka. But only a genius like him could do that. I can recollect a performance that I saw in the mid-‘70s. I still have the video of it. He performed a ‘Dasavataram’ that day. In a few minutes he had enacted all the ten avataras of Vishnu. I can say without any second thought, no one other than Asan could do such a performance.

No doubt, he was accused of dilution. But, in my personal view, it was required at that point of time. Nobody can deny the fact that Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair was the main factor behind the popularization of Kathakali in Kerala.

One more point I would like to present here is the way he established the value of a Kathakali actor in the public sphere. Just like Mahakavi Vallathol Narayana Menon charged remuneration per line for his poetry, Krishnan Nair Asan demanded value for his art. Ultimately, it helped the entire Kathakali community. Even an actor like Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair stated in his autobiography that it was Krishnan Nair who had given value to the artiste’s life in Kerala. I remember the days when Krishnan Nair Asan was getting 100 rupees for a role, whereas the entire Kalamandalam major set troupe [troupe of senior artistes] was getting only Rs. 150! People were ready to pay him so much.

Asan was asked to play roles like Nala, Bahuka, Parasuraman, Roudra Bheeman on a regular basis. A person who constantly plays such roles would have difficulty returning to the slow-tempo ‘padams’ of Kottayam stories [Subhadra Haranam, Bali Vijayam, Bali Vadham, Seetha Swayamvaram, Keechaka Vadham, Uttara Swayamvaram and Daksha Yagam]. No one would say that he did not study them. A person who had his basics from Chandu Panikker and Ravunni Menon might have mastered them in their student days. But if you are not in regular practice of such roles you might not have the inner strength to carry them out. That was what happened to Krishnan Nair when it came to ‘vilambit’ (slow-tempo) padams.

(Kalamandalam MPS Nampoothiri, born 1943, is a student of Kalamandalam Gopi, and was formerly Principal, Kerala Kalamandalam.)