Indu G: You belong to a traditional family of mizhavu performers. You were the first student to enrol when Kutiyattam course started in Kalamandalam. At the same time, by the time you joined it you had already had your initial training at home under your uncles. Could you tell us how you faced and bridged both ways of learning—the traditional method and the institutionalised way?
Unnikrishnan Nambiar: Those initial days of learning mizhavu at home did not happen voluntarily or consciously. That was the tradition in our family. The boys should learn to play mizhavu and the girls should learn Nangiarkoothu. So I too had to follow the tradition. I must have been around six years of age when I started to learn mizhavu under my uncle P.K. Narayanan Nambiar.
I.G.: What was the routine of learning?
U.N.: I had to start the lessons at around 4:30 to 5:00 in the morning. I did not train my beats on black granite as was the practice then; instead I started my beats on avanapalaka (low wooden stool). I did not know what Kutiyattam was. Nor was I interested in it. I had no other choice but to obey my uncles then. He would ask me to practise hand manipulations like takkita and go about his business while I sit there and try to beat on the low wooden stool. Sometimes I would nod off and then would be awakened by a slap from him. Initially basic talams like tripuda were taught. Afterwards I was taught whatever was required to perform for our annual temple festivals. Thus I learned certain actions of Anguliangam and Mattavilasam that was usually performed as part of the annual temple festivals. It was compulsory for the boys in the family to learn Anguliyankam in Tamil (here Tamil means language). I think it is still relevant. It was when I was studying in Class Six or so Kutiyattam was started in Kalamandalam. One day I found Nambeesan asan sitting on a stool at the front. He had come to ask my elders to let me join Kalamandalam. For my family daily subsistence itself was hard in those times, and joining Kalamandalam meant at least daily meals were ensured. So I joined it in 1966 or 1967. Kalamandalam brought a sense of discipline to my daily life. The classes, the meal times, the time to sleep—everything had its order and time. Here too the classes started early in the morning with hand manipulations like takkita. This first class started at 4:00 in the morning and ended at 6:30. Then from 8:30 to 10:00-10:30 you practised cholliyattam. After 10:00 it was time for literature classes—Srikrishnavilasam, bit of Raghuvamsaham, Nalacharitam, the basic lessons of Sanskrit—Sidharoopam. After the morning classes there would a break after which they resumed at about 6:00 in the evening and continued till 8:00 or 8:30.
I.G.: Kalamandalam opened up a new way of learning Kutiyattam where the actors and the instrument players came together and practised. Whereas earlier they practised at home and came together on stage. What were the changes that you found when the traditional way of learning shifted to the institutionalised way? Did the vayttari (rhythmic vocalizations) change in the Kalamandalam way of learning?
U.N.: It was clear only after two or three years after joining Kalamandalam. The traditional method and institutional method focus on learning the same things. But there were little changes here and there. In Kalamandalam we were trained to repeat the vayttari aloud while playing. That helped. And also this institutionalized learning helped in cholliyattam greatly. When we practise with the actor, we get to know what he is doing or will do at a particular point and that will greatly improve our performance on the mizhavu. The place of mizhavu is usually at the back of the stage behind the actor. So normally it was difficult to synchronize the mizhavu with the execution. But with the training at Kalamandalam it changed.
I.G.: You are one of the few persons who had accompanied great artistes of the last generation, like Mani Madhava Chakyar, Ammannur Madhava Chakyar, Painkulam Rama Chakyar, Muzhikulam Kochukuttan Chakyar, each of whom had his own individualistic style. How did you adjust to their different styles?
U.N.: Each one has their own individual peculiarities. It cannot be ascribed to different gurukulams or learning centres. Mani Madhava Chakyar did mainly annual temple performances. There was a seamless, effortless flow to his acting. Painkulam Ramachakyar (senior) was strict about the method acting. The strict pattern of Kalamandalam came to fore in his performances. After each performance he would give us a review of it. Ammannur Madhava Chakyar was more focussed on the stage performances than in the kalari (class).
I.G.: In Kalamandalam the idea was to give a tight crisp performance. Whereas Ammannur’s style was to be as elaborate as possible. The present generation of mizhavu players is unable to keep up with Kutiyattam performances of longer duration. As a mizhavu player how did you adapt your performance to both styles?
U.N.: When we sit down for a performance we keep in mind that it will go on till the early hours of dawn. So we have to preserve our energy and play accordingly. They should also learn to conserve energy for the long duration of performance.
I.G.: In the recent years there have been many changes in the way mizhavu players play. The present-day generation is focussed more on bringing in more drama and playing with gusto right from the beginning. But you are known more for your balanced, subtle and beautiful way of playing. What would you say about the way the young performers play now?
U.N.: Most of the present-day performances are short and within that short span the entire story has to be narrated. Today’s generation of mizhavu players is used to playing for just one character and also for such short performances. Traditional performances would take long hours and in most of them the same person would be playing the mizhavu throughout. Youngsters allow for silence to come in while playing mizhavu. In traditional performances this is not followed. Beats would fall on mizhavu continuously. If it went silent, the stage would seem dull.
I.G.: We have experienced the serene sound that emanate from your mizhavu. This sereneness has not been emulated bv any of the later performers. Why?
U.N.: In Kalamandalam and also in Margi I was used to working alone. I alone had worked on the innovations. It will take many years to effectively train someone and get him on stage. The mizhavu has to be approached with passion and affection. We say mizhavu vayikkuka and not mizhavu adikkuka (to play mizhavu and not beat mizhavu). If it is approached with respect and passion we can refine the music coming out of it more.
I.G.: You did your training in both Kalamandalam and Ammannur Gurukulam. Then you performed in Margi and worked with senior artistes like Moozhikulam Kochukuttan Chakyar and also strict and passionate scholars like D. Appukuttan Nair. Can you elaborate on your experiences of working with them?
U.N.: Margi follows a more systematic training method. Artistes like Kochukuttan Chakyar who was well-versed in attaprakarams was crucial in initiating training in Margi. He would correct me no matter where we were. At Ammannur, Ammannur Madhava Chakyar was known more for his elaborate acting. Though he sometimes would say we children were not old enough to learn to accompany intricate acting as in Ashokavanikhangam, we indeed were taught all that. D. Appukuttan Nair would arrive punctually at 8:00 in the morning whether we were there or not. He would observed the teaching sessions closely and offer comments. For example, he would say that the way I played at a particular point did not sound suitable though he himself could not think of a better, alternate way to play. His insightful comments always made me think and try and improve myself.
I.G.: Why do we lack new experimental work and research in Kutiyattam? Is it the lack of scholars like Appukuttan Nair that is affecting its growth?
U.N.: He was passionate about the art as well as the artistes. He worked for the promotion of the art form. We don’t have such passionate scholars involved with Kutiyattam now.
I.G.: Kutiyattam is undergoing a crisis now. Though it has come out of the temple premises and is performed in public spaces, the survival of artistes has become an issue now. Earlier there was a system to support them though it was meagre. Now with the institutionalized training, the artiste is mostly left to fend for himself/herself with some assistance from the government. What do you think about the future of this art form?
U.N.: Now we are not identified as Chakyars or Nambiars; instead we all belong to the community of Kutiyattam artistes. But unlike the artistes in other performance forms, we are not benefitted financially. What we need is the support of scholars and organisers. The artistes cannot be expected to go on seeking financial support for themselves. There has to be a system. From their part they also have to be less ambitious about the financial gains. You should try and find alternative modes of support. I do that by preparing costumes and renting out costumes and by teaching. Today’s generation of mizhavu players know only to play their instrument. They are not involved in other aspects of the act.
I.G.: Do you think it is because of the compartmentalised way of learning in an institution? Most of the students are engaged with their own work and not other aspects.
U.N.: It might be. The younger generation is also not willing to learn. There is a lack of commitment in the new system of learning. Today they learn only one thing. If he/she plays mizhavu, then they learn only to perform for Kutiyattam. But if you play for paddakam, you will understand more about the story. They should know everything about the performance while playing mizhavu. For that they also should respect the art. Traditional learning always attempted to develop a duty-bound approach to the art form. That has certainly helped in its survival.