Repertoire with an Intriguing Eye for Detai
Born to Pazhaniyandi and Kurumba of the Paanan tribal community, Muthu’s family traditionally weaved baskets and umbrellas (olakkuda) from palm leaves for a living. He learnt to write under the supervision of his tutor Achu Ezhuthachan, but dropped out of school after four years. His tryst with Paanankali began at the young age of 12, when he started training under Paanankali master Parangodan Asan. That tutelage bloomed into an undying passion for the art form. Muthu’s performing style was a class apart from others in the field. He did not just sing and dance, but eloquently touched upon concepts of life and philosophy with startling and impressive conviction. When placed under a spotlight, he was a true story-teller in full glory who basked in all the well-deserved attention.
The question answer format between the Sanyasi and Panadaram gave him ample space to expound the immense knowledge that he had gathered from near and far. Paanankali artists touch upon scientific concepts of human embryology and anatomy as well as spiritual and philosophical ideas like ‘Maaya’, ‘Jnaanam’ (wisdom) and the purpose of life. While there are similar art forms like Yathrakkali, in the Namboodiri community, Paanankali stands out among them. This is because the upper classes like the Namboodiris had unbridled access to a formal education system. On the other hand, sections like the Paanan community were illiterate by conventional standards. The very thought that an individual with limited formal education can weather questions far above his expected intellect levels talks volumes about the depth of the scriptures and text behind this art form. However, the research efforts into this has been nearly absent till date.
Paanankali performers traditionally carry with them stories that have been passed down from one generation to the next. These stories have reached them through word of mouth and their observation skills.A deeper investigation into the origin of the stories revealed that their background text may have been Udalkoor, a Tamil manuscript which was brought from Tamil Nadu to adjoining Kerala’s Palakkad district by Siddhanmar or Siddhakavikal (Gurus with divine knowledge). These writings were then imbibed by the Paanan tribe who infused them with the local Malayalam language. Theyalso retained portions of Tamil and Sanskrit in the performances. During the olden days Paanar used to be one community who also acted as messengers among a group of houses. They carried the news about important incidents like a birth, wedding or death, keeping the members of the community well-informed. Muthu Aashan’s awareness was however not limited to just this, but also extended to regional and national headlines. During performances, the audience too could ask him questions. In the rare event that he could not pinpoint the exact answer, he would reference popular events that marked the timeline of the answer. For example, If you were to ask him the time when a village elder had passed away, he can very well connect and reference it to the death of a popular figure during that time and convince the audience. This ability to connect the dots and respond with well-thought-out answers in a matter of seconds is truly a mark of sheer brilliance on his part.
An Artist in the True Sense
Muthu Aashan’s prowess as an artist did not go entirely unnoticed. In 1968, he was honored with a silver medal from the then Chief Minister, E.M Shanakaran Namboodiripad. It is perhaps a testimony to the artist’s and art form’s sad plight that he had to ultimately sell this medal to feed his dependents. In 1981, he published a book Kurathinatakam with the help of the Harijan Welfare Department. But Muthu Aashan was not driven towards art just because of these accolades. His motivation was the respect and appreciation that a gathering crowd gave for his act. And there was surely no dearth for compliments during his performances. His skill as an artist was so widely known that many Paanankali teams from nearby villages regularly called upon him to be their trump card for winning arguments. In his young days, Muthu was known for his performances as female characters, which he narrated with a smile referring to some high profile men of those days who at times made attempted advances to him…!
Art is the Best Teacher
The importance and relevance of an art form like Paanankali is not just in the stories that it brings from the past. Its attention to detail and the unique perspective that it brings to topics has high inter-human and intra-human relevance. Unnikrishnan quotes an incident where he was asked a question on Nalacharitam by Muthu Aashan. Nalacharitam Aattakkatha is the Kathakali play written by poet and scholar Unnayi Warrier. It tells the story of King Nalan and Damayanthi. Muthu Aashan’s question was:“What was the specialty of the lotus flowers that filled the sacred pond belonging to King Nala? ”The Nalacharitam Aattakatha does not make any mention of this. The answer that Muthu Aashan gave was that the flowers that blossomed on each day carried a hue that differed from those ones in the past or future. One hue was never repeated. Despite the scientific justification which one might have sought for, what surprised Unnikrishnan was the immense attention paid by Muthu to such minute details. It is this intuitive level of thinking and deep-rooted curiosity for knowledge that is lacking in many of us today. Do we really need more reasons to explain why such art forms like Paanankali need to be revived and artists like Muthu Aashan be remembered ?