A Legacy Revisited

in Overview
Published on: 16 December 2015

The four-hundred-year old history of Kathakali, the highly evolved dance-theatre developed from Ramanattam (a style of dance-drama delineating the story of Rama), is replete with sagas of legendary actors, singers, percussionists and choreographers. In his monumental Kathakalirangam, the late historian KPS Menon has devoted generous space to the aesthetic contributions of icons in each field. While appraising the artistes associated with Kerala Kalamandalam, Menon gives chief consideration to Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, who dominated the Kathakali stage from the late 1950s to just a few months before his demise on August 15, 1990. He rose from humble beginnings to become the first megastar in Kathakali, and his autobiography records his debt to his mentors at Kalamandalam, one of India’s premier performing arts institutes, and its founder, the poet Vallathol Narayana Menon, whose affection towards ‘the boy from north Malabar’ was boundless.

Born on April 7, 1914, in Cheruthazham village, Payyannur district, Krishnan was drawn to the sangeetanatakams (song and drama) with which his maternal family was associated. The Kathakali-obsessed Namboodiris (Kerala Brahmins) of the Varanakkottu Mana (house) took notice of the boy’s interest in and talent for acting and directed him to Guru Chandu Panickar, the renowned Kathakali acharya. Krishnan had witnessed Chandu Panickar’s enactment of Ravana at the temple festival, and in his autobiography, Ente Jeevitham: Arangilum Aniyarayilum (‘My Life, On-stage and Backstage’), he recalls being spellbound by the spectacle. Under the tutelage of Panickar Krishnan learnt the rudiments of Kathakali. He was soon to take up the role of Lalitha in Poothana Moksham (‘salvation of the demoness Poothana’) which earned him the title, ‘Poothana Krishnan’. Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Poduwal, Kathakali’s supreme chenda artiste who could trace a character’s minutest sentiments on his instrument, has drawn a captivating picture of Krishnan Nair as Lalitha and Poothana in his fascinating book, Melapperukkam.

It was at the Guruvayoor Sreekrishna temple that Vallathol Narayana Menon saw Krishnan for the first time in the role of Poothana. The impression the boy’s performance made on the poet was overwhelming. Vallathol brought Krishnan to Kalamandalam, and as the cliché goes, ‘the rest is history’.

Kalamandalam days
Unlike his classmates at the Kalamandalam kalari like Ananda Sivaram, Kelu Nair and Madhavan, Krishnan Nair had largely to unlearn the rudimentary lessons in Kathakali he had received from Chandu Panickar. Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon, the apostle of the chiseled Kalluvazhi Chitta (Kalluvazhi school) that flourished in and around west Palakkad under the patronage of the powerful Olappamanna Mana, was a ruthless disciplinarian when it came to grooming his students. Under this task-master, Krishnan Nair imbibed the subtle implications of the angika (body movements) and satwik abhinaya (emotive acting) of the lead characters in the four plays of Kottayathu Thampuran, a king of north Malabar. He grasped these two modes of acting for the principal characters in the plays Subhadra Haranam, Bali Vijayam, Bali Vadham, Seetha Swayamvaram, Keechaka Vadham, Uttara Swayamvaram and Daksha Yagam.

Bali Vijayam: Krishnan Nair as Narada (L) with Kalamandalam Ramankutti Nair as Ravana

Thakazhi Kunju Kurup, whom Vallathol has praised generously as a marvelous performer, was a member of the Kathakali faculty in the 1930s. Kurup guided Krishnan Nair towards the technically less demanding but emotionally exuberant cosmos of Kathakali plays such as Nala Charitam by the poet Unnai Warrier, Mandavappilli Ittiraricha Menon’s Santhana Gopalam and Rukmangada Charitam, Muringoor Sankaran Potti’s Kuchela Vritham, Vayaskara Arya Narayanan Moossatu’s Duryodhana Vadham and Aswathy Thirunal’s Rukmini Swayamvaram. Kurup’s histrionic dexterity and the spontaneity of his manodharmam (improvisations) bewitched Krishnan Nair. Endowed with amazingly expressive upangas (eyes, nose, cheeks and lips), a captivating figure and an extraordinary capacity for identification with the text, context and the characters, Krishnan Nair’s choice of embracing the stylistics of Kunju Kurup had the desired effect, both on his colleagues and on spectators. The eulogies he had already won from audiences in his roles as Poothana in Poothana Moksham and Chitralekha in Bana Yuddham served as the springboard for his rise to stardom.

Krishnan Nair (R back) as Bheeman in Duryodhana Vadham

Before leaving Kalamandalam, Krishnan Nair underwent a brief period of training focussed on eye movements at the Desamangalam Mana under the celebrated Kutiyattam actor, Mani Madhava Chakyar. Krishnan Nair had been amazed by Chakyar’s ability to realize a scene solely with his eyes, for instance one in which he imitated a pigeon as it flies up towards a fruit in a tall tree, settles down, eats it and flies away cheerfully. The young Krishnan Nair thus realized the potential powers of the upanga, eyes, in the world of pantomime.

Voyages to freedom
Shortly after completing his course at Kalamandalam, Krishnan Nair got married to Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma who had learnt Mohiniyattam at the institute under the veteran Guru, Korattikara Krishna Panickar. The artist-couple found it increasingly difficult to stay on at their alma mater. Together, they decided to set off and seek greener pastures. By then the ardent Kathakali fans of Travancore (south Kerala) had developed a deep admiration for Krishnan Nair.

The couple stayed for short stints along the Periyar river at Alwaye (now known as Aluva) before finally settling down at Tripunithura, the hub of the erstwhile king of Cochin. Here, Krishnan Nair and his family could enjoy a measure of royal patronage as the kith and kin of the king of Cochin were invariably drawn towards Kathakali and Mohiniyattam. To run a fairly big family on the paltry and irregular income of a freelance artiste appeared unimaginable in the 1960s. Through sheer willpower and optimism, Krishnan Nair met the challenge of ensuring his family’s livelihood almost exclusively through his stage performances of Kathakali.

Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair and Kalamandalam Kalyanikutti Amma

This belief in his art form had been manifest even earlier, when he persevered despite one classmate after another leaving Kathakali for more popular dance and dance-drama presentations. In the interview with literary critic S. Guptan Nair on the eve of his 60th birthday celebrations, one of his comments was quite striking, ‘I didn’t want to switch from Kathakali to contemporary dance or theatre as I felt such an act would be tantamount to jumping from an ocean to a polluted pond.’ When the RLV School of Fine Arts introduced Kathakali as a discipline, Krishnan Nair was appointed the Principal Instructor. By this time his fame had risen to great heights, especially in south Kerala.

Unforgettable images
The passing of the celebrity actors Mathoor Kunju Pillai Panickar and Thakazhi Kunju Kurup left a vacuum when it came to the performance of heroic roles, which none of their successors from the Thekkan Chitta (‘southern school’) of Kathakali could fill. Destiny decreed that Krishnan Nair take up the mantle. He soon began to enact the lead roles in all the popular plays, starting with Nala in Nala Charitam I & II, and moving onto Bahuka in Nala Charitam III & IV, the Brahmin and Arjuna in Santhana Gopalam, Rukmangada in Rukmangada Charitam, Arjuna and Balabhadara in Subhadra Haranam, Raudra Bheeman in Duryodhana Vadham, Ravana in Bali Vijayam, Bali Vadham and Thorana Yudham, Sundara Brahmin in Rukmini Swayamvaram, Parasurama in Seetha Swayamvaram, Keechaka in Keechaka Vadham, Duryodhana and Brihandala in Uttara Swayamvaram and Daksha in Daksha Yagam. Krishnan Nair mesmerized the audience with astounding facial expressions and his articulations with his expressive eyes. The late Kathakali thespian, Mankulam Vishnu Namboodiri, who had shared the stage with Krishnan Nair on numerous occasions, praised Krishnan Nair’s eyes as a vibrant source that could stir up tale after tale in each and every play.

Santhana Gopalam: From left to right, Krishnan Nair (R) as Arjuna (Kaliyarangu, Kottayam); as Arjuna (L) with Mankulam Vishnu Nampoothiri as Krishna
Involvement and creativity
From the days of Ramanattam, Kathakali plays have been characterized by conventional romantic metaphors and images like lotus flowers, Kamadeva (the Hindu god of love), cuckoos, peacocks, trees, monkeys, tendrils, creepers, forests, breeze, fragrance, dice games, battles and so on. Perhaps unmatched in terms of poetic intensity, exquisite subtlety in the expression of emotions of myriad hues, and the dramatic unfolding of events is Unnai Warrier’s Nala Charitam. Capturing the implicit meanings of each and every line has been a huge challenge to actors across generations. Krishnan Nair could enact Nala and Bahuka in Nala Charitam with a rare intensity of involvement and expression. At Kalamandalam he had learnt the literature of Kathakali plays from none other than the erudite scholar and critic Kuttikrishna Marar. The knowledge thus attained was very well reflected in his treatment of the heroes and anti-heroes of Kathakali.

As Nala (L), with Oyur Kochugovinda Pillai as Hamsam

Let us examine the highly charged padam soaked in sringara rasa that Nala addresses to Damayanthi, ‘Kuvalaya vilochane baale’ (‘One with eyes like the petals of the Karimkoovala flower’). The delineation of each and every metaphor in the pallavi, anupallavi and the charanam reveals Krishnan Nair’s treasure-trove of satwik abhinaya (emotive acting). When it comes to the phrase, ‘Kisalayadhare!’ (‘One whose lips are soft like tendrils’), Krishnan Nair would evoke the sweetness and softness of her lips through his eyes, interspersed with the hand gesture for tendrils. This, for the initiated prekshaka (spectator), is sheer visual poetry. Even as Dharmaputra in Kirmeera Vadham, Krishnan Nair had several brilliant moments. The manner in which he questions Lord Krishna, ‘Aren’t you ashamed?’, suggesting Krishna’s indifference to the atrocities the Kauravas committed against the Pandavas, has moved hundreds of rasikas beyond words.

His enactments of prathinayakas (anti-heroes) too have similar aesthetic overtones. Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Poduwal noted the amazing impact Krishnan Nair created on stage as Ravana executing Parvathi Viraham (the separation of Parvathi from Siva when she suspects his dalliance with Ganga) through pakarannattam (a technique where the same actor becomes various characters). Poduwal hails the moment Siva beckons Ganga ensconced in his tuft as a marvelous piece of satwik abhinaya by Krishnan Nair. Comparable was his impersonation of Keechaka who is smothered to death by Valala: till his last breath Keechaka lusts for Malini, exerting an inexplicable fascination on viewers.

In its essential form, the Kalluvazhi Chitta of Kathakali does not represent reactions on the part of the character being addressed: when the hero speaks to the heroine, a friend or an enemy, the latter remains passive. In all likelihood, it was Thakazhi Kunju Kurup who brought to the Kathakali stage of central Kerala reflections and reactions by the character to whom another character speaks. As Kurup’s disciple, Krishnan Nair made such reactions theatrical, creating tremendous visual impact. Nala’s responses to the golden swan’s words, Bahuka’s response to the words of the serpent, Karkotaka and Raudra Bheeman’s reactions to Dussasana’s angry utterances are excellent examples.

Krishnan Nair’s taste for dramatic expressions far outweighed his interest in and inclination towards nritta (abstract movements based on rhythm, also referred to as ‘pure dance’) and nritya (interpretative dance based on the lyrics of a composition). Empowered by the boundless praise he received from the audience, Krishnan Nair began indulging in those roles that offered him the space and context to dip into the bottomless pit of lokadharmi (realistic acting). His Viswamitra and Chutala Harischandra in Harischandra Charitam was very popular as people could easily understand and appreciate his hand gestures, movements and expressions, which almost completely defied stylization and the grace of discipline.

Unchecked realism and blatant humor turned out to be the weaknesses of this enormously gifted artiste in the latter part of his artistic career. Sthayi bhavas (enduring expressions) he would dispense with even in the highly structured plays of Kottayathu Thampuran while sanchari/vyabhichari bhavas (transitory expressions) invaded the form and content of his art to an alarming extent. Connoisseurs in central Kerala privately and publicly declared that Krishnan Nair had embraced Kunju Kurup, casting aside the rigorous physical discipline that was the hallmark of the Kalluvazhi Chitta preserved by Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon. An overemphasis on facial expression at the cost of the angapratyangas (neck, shoulder, limbs and the body) invited severe criticism from purist viewers.

But Krishnan Nair was nonchalant towards the diatribes of his ‘detractors’. A colossus in the field, he strode on, enacting a wide range of characters in the categories of pacha (green), kathi (knife), vellathadi (white beard), kari (black) and minukku (sages and females). Incidentally, with the passing of Krishnan Nair there ended the role of Sundara Brahmin in Rukmini Swayamvaram. Even prior to him, no actor except perhaps Thakazhi Kunju Kurup was able to bring out the vim and vigour of the Brahmin with charisma, wit and hilarity.

Even the Parasurama of Krishnan Nair, although unimpressive in comparison with that of Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair, had its defining moment towards the finale. The scene in which Parasurama realises the true nature of Rama as the cosmic spirit Lord Vishnu is unimaginably soul-stirring. Krishnan Nair as Parasurama falls from the peak of pride to a state of incredible humility before Rama. Likewise, there are countless moments to treasure when one revisits the minor, medium and major characters Krishnan Nair enacted on stage after stage. His Raudra Bheeman who confronts Dussasana in the battlefield of Kurukshetra in Duryodhana Vadham is etched in the minds of the rasikas (art lovers), as is his enactment of Narasimha (incarnation of Lord Vishnu as the man-lion) without over-dramatisation. Despite touches of melodrama, Krishnan Nair’s Rukmangada, Karna and Kacha displayed priceless flashes of sublime artistry.

In the evening of his life, Krishnan Nair penned his autobiography, the first to come from a Kathakali artiste. It begins with a touching account of his impoverished childhood transformed by his passion for Kathakali. The reader is carried away by the story of the various phases of his growth into a colossus of the Kathakali stage. The cultural icons that directly and indirectly stood by him through thick and thin are picturesquely described in chapter after chapter. Krishnan Nair’s immediate predecessors, successors and colleagues are given their due. The early part of the autobiography glows with a transparent diction and pastoral metaphors. For example, he describes how once in the course of a body-exercise, he fell down and broke his thigh bone. It took some time for him to recover from the pain. He broke down before his Guru, Chandu Panickar, as he felt there was no way he could become a successful actor. Panickar consoled his disciple, ‘One day you will shine like the butter in buttermilk.’

Based on his prolonged stage experience, readings and debates with informed co-actors and scholars, Krishnan Nair succeeded in enriching his manodharma (non-textual improvisation) in Kathakali. This prompted him to write an Aattaprakaram (stage manual) for Nala Charitam, which in his final illness he held close to his heart till his last breath.

Historic makeover
With Krishnan Nair gaining prominence in Kathakali by the mid-20th century, a dichotomy developed between the complex and highly stylized plays of Kottayathu Thampuran and the like, and the sentimental plays of Unnai Warrier and other playwrights. This division penetrated to the music for Kathakali as well, both vocal and instrumental. Artists began specialising in the presentation of popular plays that commanded more appeal so that they could ensure an increased number of recitals. As a result performances of the plays of Kottayathu Thampuran and those of his ilk dwindled considerably. Kerala Kalamandalam and PSV Natyasanghom, Kottakkal, had a tough time dealing with this adversity and attitudinal shift. As he approached the finale of his career, this revelation had dawned upon Krishnan Nair, who made a few not so successful attempts to reintroduce the rigour of angikabhinaya in the enactment of characters like Bheeman in Kalyana Saugandhikam and Dharmaputra in Kirmeera Vadham.

Awards and honours
No other actor of his own or preceding generations won as many awards and titles as Krishnan Nair. Special mention should be made of the Central and State Sangeet Natak Akademi Awards, a Senior Fellowship from the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, the Kerala Kalamandalam Fellowship and the President’s Padma Shri. Travelling extensively within India and abroad, over the years Krishnan Nair became synonymous with Kathakali and Kerala Kalamandalam. An objective appraisal would show that both Kalamandalam and Krishnan Nair benefited from the strong bond between the institution and its illustrious offspring.

Krishnan Nair’s colourful life both on and off the stage had a positive social impact, in that his colleagues and successors could better their bargaining position and ensure themselves a certain amount of independence in the cultural milieu. In his autobiography Krishnan Nair placed on record his sense of optimism about the continuance of Kathakali with Kalamandalam Gopi and Kottakkal Sivaraman as the rightful heirs of his legacy.

As we see around us an increase in tasteless articulations and the superfluous treatment of sequences, the void left by Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair becomes all the more conspicuous.

(V. Kaladharan was formerly Deputy Registrar, Kerala Kalamandalam, and is now Project Officer.)

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