Discussion of Nala Charitam (c. 1985)

Translated and edited by TK Sreevalsan

In summer 2013, the photograph of a scene from Nala Charitam was posted in a Facebook Group, ‘Traditional Art Forms of Kerala’ (founded in October 2011, and with over 16,000 members in June 2014), by Mumbai-based physicist Sreekanth V. Lakkidi, whose great-grandfather was the late Mani Madhava Chakyar, the Kutiyattam icon who taught Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair ‘netra abhinaya’ (eye exercises). The picture shows King Nala (Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair) at the game of dice with his brother Pushkaran (Kalamandalam Gopi), who shows the mudra ‘panayam’ (laying stakes). Behind the actors is cult musician Kalamandalam Unnikrishna Kurup. The chenda drummer is Kalamandalam Kesavan.

The post triggered a series of anecdotes and opinions, ranging from serious to light. Here is how it played out, with the Malayalam comments translated into English:

Sreekanth V. Lakkidi: [This is] perhaps the most famous Nala-Pushkaran pair after Krishnan Nair-Kunchu Nair. How about sharing your experiences about watching Krishnan Nair and Gopi in the roles?

The picture is from the ulsavam (festival) souvenir of Poornathrayeesa temple (Tripunithura, Kochi) which carries an interview with Gopi.

Sreevalsan Thiyyadi: This was staged in 1985, if I remember correctly.

Rama Das N: Krishnan Nair-Gopi used to be the Nala-Pushkaran pair in 90 per cent of the multi-star Nala Charitam shows of the 1980s. I have had the good fortune to see it several times. The experience would be even more intense when Kottakkal Sivaraman was Damayanti and Nelliyode Vasudevan Namboodiri the (villainous) Kali.

If it was completely top-rung, Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair would be the Kattalan (the woodsman who falls in love with Damayanti soon after her separation from husband Nala). Else, the Kattalan would be Vaikkom Karunanakaran, Pantalam Kerala Varma, Inchakkadu Ramachandran Pillai or Keezhpadam Kumaran Nair. As for the chenda drummer I have seen on such stages, it was for the most part Kalamandalam Kesavan. The lead musicians might be Unnikrishna Kurup, Sankaran Embranthiri or Kalamandalam Hyderali.

Aniyan Mangalassery: I’ve also chanced upon many…

Sreekanth V Lakkidi: Aniyan, it would be nice if you could share some experiences.

Athippatta Ravi Namboothiri: I have not been that fortunate in this case.

Sreekanth V Lakkidi: Hey Ravi, I had posted this mainly expecting anecdotal experience to be shared by old-timers. At least people in Tripunithura should be able to tell us more. Let me tag some of the members…

Vipin Chandran: I have had the good fortune to watch both together on many occasions in and around Ernakulam (and the pair has amused the aficionados to a great extent) but can’t recollect specifically this event, though.
Subrahmanian Namboothiri: How many times have I watched this! I even wonder whether it wasn’t in this stage role that Gopi first established himself. Playing up the undertones of certain lines (sung from behind), Krishnan Nair would give a blazing look at Pushkaran, to which the younger brother would say, ‘Ya, it’s me (who has come to challenge you).’ The scene used to be pulsating in temple festivals at night. When Krishnan Nair retreated to the green room, a hoard of his fans would chase him there as well.

Another great pair the duo would make was with Krishnan Nair as the Brahmin and Gopi as Arjuna in Santanagopalam. And Vaikkom Karunakaran as Krishnan. How can I ever forget those occasions!

Prasanth Varma: I clearly remember an anniversary show at Tripunithura Kathakali Club in the 1970s. The venue was the dining hall (oottupura) of Poornathrayeesa temple, Nala Charitam Randam Divasam (‘day two’). If my memory is right, then Pallipuram Gopalan Nair was the hunter.

PS: I also clearly recall Gopi (set to don the role of Pushkaran) picking a quarrel with the Nambiar in the green room for some reason.

Suhasgodan Namboodirippad: Thank you for this photo. Your good luck (sukrutam)!

Sreevalsan Thiyyadi: Given that it is Gopi who was furious, I wonder if anybody should investigate the reason, Prasanth [a hint at Gopi’s mood swings].

Vinu Vasudevan:  What happened to some ‘regular’ experienced writers (who keep commenting in this FB get-together)? Sleeping?

Sreevalsan Thiyyadi: (Many believe that Kathakali has itself gone into a slumber after the nights of Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair.)

VP Narayanan Nampoothiri:Can’t recall the year; the venue was Nalppathenneeswara Kshetram, Panavalli (Alappuzha district). Krishnan Nair-Gopi team as Nalan and Pushkaran. I went to the show with a friend, though I can’t quite call him that, he is 15 years older than me. He was seeing Gopi for the first time. Those were the days Gopi Asan was becoming known to people. ‘One Kalamandalam Gopi is taking the role of Pushkaran’, was what my friend thought. All the same we thought we would go to the green room to see Gopi. He had already started making up. My friend was disappointed to see a man with a thin frame getting into the costume of Pushkaran, and wondered what he was doing opposite Krishnan Nair. But once they were on stage, my friend was wonder-struck. ‘Is it the same fellow?!’ he wondered. What followed are scenes that are etched in the minds of both of us. The next day Gopi came on as Bahukan in Nala Charitam Moonnam Divasam (‘day three’). As that show ended, my friend’s comment was, ‘Sunset to the Krishnan Nair era; here is a new sun on the horizon.’

VP Narayanan Nampoothiri: One more episode from memory. The venue is the same (as above). It was customary and almost an unwritten law those days that if Krishnan Nair was there for a night-long show, he’d appear in the first story. That night wasn’t scheduled any different; Gopi was to succeed him in the second. However, Gopi wasn’t particularly well—and wanted to get slotted in the first story so that he could finish early. He made the request to Krishnan Nair. The elder master, possibly because of the affection and regard he always had for Gopi, accepted it. Thus we could see Krishnan Nair come in as an anti-hero—a kathi vesham role, as Ravanan in the story-play Rambha Pravesham.

Appan Varma: To place Gopi of those days at par with Krishnan Nair seems to be too much. Have seen them together a lot but in my humble opinion I have felt one a sea and the other a big river joining the sea.

Vipin Chandran:  I suppose Sri Appan Varma has a point there. KN was a colossus and it’s immature to compare KG with KN!  Be that as it may, KN unquestionably had a soft spot for the guy who was to carry forward his legacy, the ‘man who knew too much’ (pun intended)! This is with due respect to — in the setting of Nalan + Pushakaran—KN (+) Kalamandalam Karunakaran (I consider him a whiz kid sans a trendy draw!), Kalamandalam Vasu Pisharody (who should have gone miles with the inherited charm) and Kalamandalam Rajan (an unsung hero? Limitations acknowledged).

Please tell me, at the end of the day, isn’t history hit and miss?

Rama Das N: To me, Gopi’s best role in Nala Charitam those days was as Pushkaran.
Vipin Chandran: C’mon, with KN centre stage and the docile characterization of Pushkaran (according to the literature, not my opinion) tell me what do the great acts KG could have created, that too partnering KN? But then, it was the chemistry which came together well!

The masterpiece of KG those days was Rukmangadhan with Kottakkal Sivaraman in league, of course!

I may be wrong, please correct if so.

Rama Das N: Art appreciation, I believe, is a subjective affair, Vipin Chandran.

Vipin Chandran:  Please do not prevaricate and avoid coming to the point Sri. Ramdas N, it’s not an established move toward, I’m afraid! 

We’re actually discussing a point which is going to pierce the minds of the readers, I hope you realize!

Mothalakkottam Vasudevan: I have seen them (Krishnan Nair and Gopi) together on some Nala Charitam Randam Divasam (day two) nights.

VP Narayanan Nampoothiri: One feature of Krishnan Nair’s stage conduct was his tendency to snub fellow actors on stage. Gopi alone has (largely) escaped it, I think.

Sreevalsan Thiyyadi: Gopi today seems busy passing on to his brethren that bruise he never got from Krishnan Nair.

Vipin Chandran: Yes, Sri VP Narayanan Namboothiri, the buffs wanted it that way,don’t you agree? One-upmanship is synonymous with showmanship and infectious as Sreevalsan Thiyyadi just mentioned.

VP Narayanan Nampoothiri: I agree with Vipin Chandran and Sreevalsan Thiyyadi.

Prasanth Varma: The photo shows Nalan wearing the taamara mala (lotus garland) of the temple deity Poornathrayeesa.

Subrahmanian Nampoothiri: It is true that the way Krishnan Nair used to belittle some of his fellow actors on stage was not like what we see these days. He used to test the Puranic knowledge and approach to the character of those with him; and many were no match, therefore they were hurt. Today it isn’t like that. The tendency is to personally belittle the fellow actor whom you don’t like. Recently I even saw a Bahukan (the refugee) treating King Rituparna with contempt.

Sreekanth V Lakkidi: Bahukan is, after all, afflicted with Kali. Hence the bad influence, Sir (joking).

Pradeep Thennat: I remember seeing the Krishnan Nair-Kottakkal Sivaraman-Gopi team in (upstate) Kottakkal (Viswambhara temple festival) in 1989. I can only say I watched in amazement; I wasn’t old enough to grasp more.
Narayanan Mothalakottam: It is the cutting-edge performance that makes the actor distinct, right, Vipin Chandran? That Gopi did his Pushkaran extremely well was what Rama Das N. said, and not that it was the actor’s masterpiece, isn’t it? Surely, his brush with Krishnan Nair did hone the qualities of Gopi.

Vipin Chandran: Appreciate the version (though this should have come from Sri. Ramdas. N). Never mind. I get your point (that the comment was in relation to Nala Charitam and not in general terms). But then, I have difficulty in agreeing to the same, as KG used to do the Nalan himself (with Kalamandalam Vasu Pishorady/Kalamandalam Rajan among others, in the role of Pushkaran) and used to excel or for that matter, his Nalan in Nala Charitam I was exciting stuff too. I’m not at all dismissing the fact that KG’s Pushkaran with KN’s Nalan was a treat. And if you all were to say that KN and KG had a terrific equation and the pair was a hit as N & P, I’m with you.

KG also used to stand out in the roles of Arjunan in Santhana Gopalam or Bheeman in [Kalyana] Sauganthikam those days but then, in these instances too, he would have had to cope with the disposition of the senior partner in these roles—I trust that you will agree—and never had the freedom to settle into his individualistic style completely (in these roles).

My point is that KG’s forte being dramatic output, and the scope of emotional enactment (especially the type of gestural and expressive mode that KG is famous for) being limited in the role of Pushkaran, it is Rukmangadhan who took him to the heights. More so because, in this case, he did not have the burden (the trouble of the temperament) of a senior co-actor like KN/others while propelling his style with utmost freedom.

‘Surely, his brush with Krishnan Nair did chisel the qualities of Gopi.’ Agreed, 100 per cent.

Sadanam Harikumaran: Utter the word Pushkaran, and it is Sadanam Krishnankutty’s role of that character that comes to mind first. I believe Gopi’s Nalan is miles ahead of his Pushkaran. Only that Gopi gets flustered as Nalan when he is pitted opposite Krishnankutty as Pushkaran.

Narayanan Mothalakottam: Gopi’s streak of discomfort with Krishnankutty is only recent, right, Harikumaran?

Sadanam Harikumaran: No, it has always been there.

Ambujakshan Nair: Much of what Gopi as Nala today would ask Pushkaran opposite him is what he learned from Krishnan Nair. But unlike Gopi, Krishnan Nair was selective in having his Nalan question Pushkaran a lot. He wouldn’t do it with, say, Ramankutty Nair, who was obviously uninterested in such an exercise.

Madhavan Nampoothiri: Krishnan Nair’s south Kerala forays began with his Pushkaran opposite Nala by Thottam Sankaran Namboothiri. Krishnan Nair used to recall this fact; he has acknowledged it in his autobiography as well.

Rama Das N: Ambujakshan Nair’s anecdote reminds me of a hilarious incident I witnessed. Once, at a scene featuring Krishnan Nair-Gopi in the Nalan-Pushkaran combination, the man who was to dress up as the ‘ox’ (the only item staked by Pushkaran) didn’t turn up on time. The green room assistant was forced to wrap himself in the hand-held Kathakali curtain and appear on the stage. Shortly after, the ‘ox man’ originally scheduled arrived on the stage. Seeing Pushkaran already with an ox by his side, he went and positioned himself beside Nalan. The rest, one can imagine.

Ambujakshan Nair: Hahahaha….