Margi Madhu: When the Kutiyattam department started in Kalamandalam in 1965, you are the first student who joined it from a community outside the Chakyars. Could you tell me about those initial days in Kalamandalam?
Sivan Namboodiri: I was not a good student in school. I had heard of Kalamandalam, and I thought I would join it. I wanted to join the Kathakali department. When I went there, the admissions for the year was already closed. I met some of the teachers. Though I didn’t know any of them then, I found out later that they were some of the most illustrious artistes and teachers—Painkulam Rama Chakyar, Kalamandalam Neelakandan Nambeesan, Vazhenkada Kunchu Nair and Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair asan (teacher). Kathakali admissions were over. They asked me to join the Kutiyattam department since there were hardly any students there. I didn’t know anything about Kutiyattam at the time. All I wanted at that point was to join Kalamandalam somehow. During the interview I was asked to walk back and forth in front of them and I did. I remember Ramankutty asan telling Painkulam Ramachakyar that this boy would be very good. Then I was told that I was admitted to the Kutiyattam department. And then I had to present my gurus with the dakshina (offering). 25 paisa was the dakshina. The same 25 paise had to be offered at the feet of all the gurus. I received their blessings. Rama Chakyar asked me to go to the nearby Pangavu Devi temple and offer this 25 paise to the deity. Thus I joined Kalamandalam. There were only two students for Kutiyattam and I was sent to Ramankutty Asan’s kalari and Raman (Rama Chakyar) Padmanabhan asan’s kalari. I had to undergo uzhichil(oil-massage of the body). At first the massage was done very mildly. Thus I began to learn the basics of Kutiyattam. Chakyar Asan was a very strict teacher. After having seen some of his strict punishment with other students I was fearful that he would do the same with me too. But I was determined to continue in Kalamandalam. Joining it was perceived as a prestigious thing in those days. My father had encouraged me though my mother was not very approving. Father was into arts and all. He knew all the 64 stories in Ottanthullal.
The food that we got in Kalamandalam was not good at all. We got wheat gruel for breakfast, rice for lunch, black tea in the afternoon and two or three rotis at night. We would be punished if we wasted food. Anyway, thus somehow I began to adjust myself to Kutiyattam and Kalamandalam. I learnt Sanskrit from Unnikrishnan Ilayathu. Though I wasn’t a brilliant student I gradually picked up Sanskrit little by little. We got a break around 10:30 in the morning. Chakyar asan sent us to the tea shop nearby to buy parippu vada or plantains. When we returned, we sat around sharing them. It was his way to develop affection in our minds to Kutiyattam and towards him. Nambiar asan (P.K. Narayanan Nambiar) joined the faculty by then and I learnt to play on the mizhavu too. For several years I accompanied the practice of nityakriya on the drum. As I was a Namboodiri, I was taunted, made fun of and was asked to leave Kutiyattam for Chakyars and go and become a temple priest. Many times I had cried to myself. I would tell my asan everything and he would console me saying that Kutiyattam is a great art form and I would never lose in life because of it. Thus my learning continued and then when I was in my third year I debuted. I performed the role of Srirama. Afterwards I went on a performance tour to Bombay (Mumbai). I had never been to any place outside till then. Going to Bombay for performance was considered a great opportunity and it all happened to me because of Kutiyattam. Except for a few persons who made fun of me, generally everyone was encouraging. The tour and the encouragement gave me strength and confidence.
M.M.: What was the pattern of teaching in Kalamandalam then?
S.N.: In Kalamandalam there were fixed timings for classes then but not for Kutiyattam classes. Soon after I joined, the classes were shifted to a new building. But the Kutiyattam classes remained in the old building. We had to practice the stance in the morning. When we practised the sitting posture, we had to be very careful that our knees were kept open wide. After some time our legs would start to tremble badly. When Asan looked at us directly we would stick to the knees-bent posture; when his gaze was turned away we would rise a little. It would go on like that. Asan never made us suffer badly. After practising the posture for some time he made us do a bit of exercise to relax our muscles, even though we would have gone through all the leg movement practice early in the morning itself. So this cholliyattam went on till 10:30 in the morning. Nambiar asan would sit at the front and play the mizhavu. The synchronization of acting and drumming happened then. Sometimes Achunni Pothuval asan also—they all are no more now—would be called to the class to play his edakka. After I did my maiden performance I grew confident and the thought that I might fail to survive on Kutiyattam never troubled me again.
M.M.: So you learnt it the traditional way, first the purappadu ('setting out'), then the nirvahanam ('retrospective'), in that order?
S.N.: We learnt purappadu first. Frankly speaking I didn’t learn nirvahanam as much. Only as much nirvahanam as to perfect the mudras. That was what Asan would say. The focus was on the drama itself. I learned character roles and Rama Chakyar learned to perform the part of Vidushaka. I imagine that was what asan must have had in mind—students to take up the roles of a male character and Vidushaka. The male role I would do and Raman would do the Vidushaka. I didn’t get many chances to perform nirvahanam; hence I cannot claim complete mastery over it.
M.M.: I have heard that you performed nirvahanam in Venganallor temple.
S.N.: Yes, I did. In Kalamandalam we had two months of vacation every year. Towards the end of every vacation there would be Kutiyattam performances at Venganallor temple. Asan would send me a postcard. As for me I would be eagerly waiting for it. There too the teaching would continue. Asan would let us perform. Then he would suggest certain changes that would set us thinking and bring in improvements. That was how it went on.
M.M.: You must have watched Painkulam Ramachakyar perform many times. Could you tell us about his style of acting and narration?
S.N.: Whenever there was Kutiyattam in Venganallor, the whole agrashala—there was no kootampalam there, there was only agrashala—would be full. The majority of the villagers at Venganallor were Pattars or Tamil Brahmins. Especially on the days when Chakyar Asan performed it would be crowded. He read newspapers regularly and it reflected in his koottu. As for myself I was not very eager to perform koottu. Firstly only Chakyars had the right to perform in the temples. I could perform only at Venganallur temple. When Asan performed Raman and I would sometimes play on the mizhavu. Our playing wasn’t anything spectacular. Our only intention was to fill the hall. So we would play with gusto for almost 10 minutes. In those days Krishnan Nambiar was very famous for his mizhavu playing. When he played the first beat on the mizhavu, it resonated across the whole of Venganallor village. On the days of Kutiyattam performances Krishnan Nambiar would sit behind the mizhavu. On other days of Koottu, we would begin the beats and would be continued by someone else. Asan was very happy about this as this gave us publicity that people would come to know that his boys were playing mizhavu.
M.M.: Could you tell us about his acting?
S.N.: I never got to see much of his acting on stage. Whenever he played a role I too would be performing a role. So I was not able to observe him very much. In Venganallur performances Narayana Chakyar was acclaimed for his role as Bali. He was a huge man. I saw his performance only once at Venganallor and even that I don’t remember most of it as I was on the backstage. But even from there I remember being impressed by his personality—his height, cheeks, and nose. Later I was the one who played Bali. See, at Venganallor what happened was that once a particular story was presented for the annual festival, it would take some years for its next turn. But in Kalamandalam we got more chances to see and perform the plays.
M.M.: Unlike other Chakyars, your guru, Painkulam Ramachakyar was well-versed in literature and also was close with many poets and writers like Mundasseri (Joseph Mundasseri). Did he encourage poems and other literary texts when you were learning under him in Kalamandalam?
S.N.: He never said anything like that. But he always encouraged us to go and watch other art forms like Kathakali, Panchavadyam, Ottanthullal etc. Most of the steps in the war scene in Balivadham was choreographed by both me and Raman. And we would demonstrate it in front of Chakyar Asan. He would not say anything then but later we would come to hear of his praises from someone else.
Being a Namboodiri I could not perform on stage in Thrissur. But I went to watch the performances. Once I had the fortune to paint Ammanur Madhava Chakyar’s face. I had good relations with all the Chakyars. They all treated me kindly and encouraged me. The rumours of caste prejudice were just the works of some gossip-mongers. Once I had performed with Irinjalakkuda Ammannur Madhava Chakyar. I played Arjuna and he did the role of Vidushaka. We did not rehearse together or anything. We got together just before we had to go on stage. He told me to perform in my way and he would do it his way. When my turn was over I was supposed to pause and look at him. Then it would be his turn to play. I consider such close mental bond with a person like him a blessing. Same was the case my asan. He played Vidushaka and I played the main role. If I made mistakes, he would come behind me—Vidushaka had the freedom to move around on stage—and pinch me. After a performance he would call everyone who participated and point out the mistakes. It was never in the tone of accusations or anything. It was all done jovially and sportingly. All the teachers were like that. They only wanted to make us aware of our mistakes and correct them.
M.M.: You joined Kalamandalam as a teacher and worked there for quite a while. Tell us about your experiences when you taught in the same kalari where you learnt under your asan?
S.N.: I always taught in the way I learnt. I did not wish to experiment with anything new. The reason was that there were very few stages for Kutiyattam, and so the scope for experimentation was less. Whatever I taught I would teach diligently and untiringly. Raman too was like that. Take for e.g. the part of Kailasodhhraana. I would demonstrate each and every step and mudra to my students.
M.M.: Kutiyattam department started functioning in Kalamandalam in 1965. Yourself and Rama Chakyar joined as students and later both of you became teachers there. But there never was another artiste who gained recognition as you or Rama Chakyar for a long time from Kalamandalam. Could you tell me why?
S.N.: The main reason is we don’t get enough male actors. When the few students we had finished their course in six years, they would approach us seeking guidance for their future. But what could we do? If we recommended their names the Kalmandalam was not willing to take them for further studies. Everybody struggles to get venues for performance. Places like Margi are good for the actors. But they should work hard for a long time to gain recognition. Even you must have suffered in your initial days. It took years for you to enjoy the fruits of your labour. Same with me. It was post retirement from Kalamandalam that I drew some benefit. When I worked there I was bound to their rules. Bur after retirement I could bring some changes in the roles. The changes in costumes—the costumes got the beauty as we see it now due to the efforts by Painkulam Asan and Kalamandalam Rammohan. When Kutiyattam came out of Kalamandalam to other institutions there were efforts to bring in changes. Earlier Bali and Sugreevan had the same type of striped red and black costume. Now the cotumes are different. If we had stayed in Kalamandaalm it would not have happened. And also when everyone accepts it the changes become effective. Now the majority of the artistes today are willing to accept these changes.
M.M.: What do you think about the stature of Kutiyattam now?
S.N.: There are many good Kutiyattam actors now. There is a sizeable audience who appreciate this art form. At the same time the people who look down on it is also no less. As artistes we should ignore negative comments and go and perform where there is appreciation. The people have very busy schedules and when they are free they are drawn to other tempting media like cinema etc. The government still is reluctant to provide support to the artistes. UNESCO gives financial aid but it is not sufficient. The government must support and promote us and also coordinate with us. And unity and resolve.
M.M.: What should the present generation of artistes do to ensure the survival of Kutiyattam?
S.N.: Financial support is the first thing that is needed for the art form now. The temples too are not very interested. The artistes cannot do anything in that aspect. Only the government can help us with finances. Nowadays temples are not interested in organising Kutiyattam performances. The spaces where Kutiyattam can be performed are very few. Out of the ten students that I teach, only three or four will be good. It is for them that we need to do something. The recognition by the UNESCO hasn’t helped us much financially. Only the government can do something. They can. Only thing is that there should be people who raise the concerns of Kutiyattam artistes with the government and ensure that the money is granted.