In conversation with retired Life-Science teacher & Kathakali artist Dr. C.P Unnikrishnan to unearth the magnetic persona of one of the greatest Paanankali talents of Kerala – Panayur Muthuaashaan
There was a time when the winds of Panayur village in Kerala’s Palakkad district frequently carried with them the infectious tunes of Muthu Aashan’s folk songs. Ashaan is a Malayalam term referring to an authority in a field such as a scholar, trainer & performer. Parakkettuparambil Panayur Muthu fondly known as Muthu Aashan was a diminutive figure, but looks can always be deceiving. His physical appearance gave almost no indication of his immense talent and caliber as a Paanankali artist.
Paanankali - A David among Goliaths
Paanankali is a lesser-known folk theatre from central Kerala when compared to its possible counterparts such as Ottan Thullal and Chakkiar Koothu. This art form involves a ‘Debate-Mode’ of presentation performed by the Paanan tribal community of Kerala. From being a widespread rural folk art, it has now been diluted to performances at temple festivals like the Arayankavu Pooram. What sets Paanankali apart is its down-to-earth flavor and closeness to reality. Ironically, these along with prevalent social circumstances and the lack of a vibrant visual appeal have been the predominant reasons for its steady withdrawal from the mainstream of performing arts. Even today, the rich upper class sections treat this art with a touch of disdain. There is also the obvious absence of colorful elements that had brought in popularity and mystique to powerful art forms from North Malabar like Theyyam or Thirayattam.
Realistic Performing Style and Characterization
Paanankali was symbolic of the avarna-savarna divide that was so pervasive in the region’s caste-system during those times. It was a Purattu naadakam - purath aadunna naadakam or theatre performed outside a temple or other sanctified grounds that were inaccessible to the lower rungs of society. With seven basic types of footwork, its performing style was that of debates or arguments between two characters – a Sanyasi and a representative of the lower realms of society. These can be the Thottiyan and Thottichi, Choklian and Chokliathi or Cheruman and Cherumi. The actual presentation involves a number of parts that follow a set order of performance – Dasiyattam, Rangavandanam, Krishnasthuthi all of which are invocations to the almighty. This is followed by a content heavy portion called the ‘Kashipanadaram’, also referred to as ‘Sanyasinilayam’. While the invocation portions are performed by male and female (men dressed as women) characters, Kashipandaram is the eloquent discussion between a pilgrim, who carries on his head, a bundle of his personal possessions while travelling to Kaashi and a Sanyasi (a spiritually inclined scholar who has renounced all material bonds)he meets on the way. The usual accompaniments include a thudi (drum) and kuzhithalam (cymbals).
Early in 1977, Unnikrishanan met Muthu Aashan during a visit to his ancestral family home in Panayur village of Palakkad district. “Wearing a simple mundu (dhothi) and a with thorthu (towel) tied around his head, there was something extraordinary in his sharp features and crystal clear diction” he remembers. It soon led to him start a conversation with the Paanankali maestro. That first conversation led to many more and eventually resulted in him accompanying Muthu Aashan to observe a full-fledged performance. Soon, he made a video footage of Muthu Aashan’s performance of the lead characters. This footage is possibly the strongest documented repository of this fading art form that has not found too many takers in today’s fast-paced world.