Kavalam Narayana Panikker is synonymous with the revival of Malayalam theatre with infusions of Kerala classical and folk traditions. His genre of theatre was unique in that while being a true Kerala theatre form or a ‘theatre of roots’, it was yet global in nature. Through his plays and poetry, he revitalized the earthy and mesmerizing folk traditions of Kerala, at the same time leaving enough room for aspiring theatre directors to improvise and interpret their own perspectives. His plays were universal and incorporated elements from modern theatre that added true value to the art form. His style of art stood apart from others because while he took inspiration from ancient theatre conventions of international artists, he continued to remain rooted to his own land and to the soil that he was born into.
Hailing from Kavalam village of the rustic and culturally vibrant Kuttanad region of Kerala, Narayana Panikker grew up watching and listening to the region’s spellbinding folk traditions. He was initiated into the world of literature by his father Godavarma. Moreover, the upper class landowners carried a tradition where the womenfolk engaged in regular readings of epics like the Mahabharata and the Ramayana. Narayanan Panikker has been quoted to have acknowledged that this culturally intense environment played a huge role in shaping the artist in him at an early age. In fact, these readings of the epics eventually led him to organize public poetry reading sessions during a period when poetry was considered a pastime solely for private enjoyment.
The influence of these elements is evident right from his early works in poetry. Poems like 'Ganapathithalam' and 'Mannu', while poignant and beautifully crafted, used traditional rhythms of Kuttanad to add to their charm. Few others like 'Kothamoori' are narrative works. Then there are those like 'Velan Velu', which talk about a village sorcerer and his turbulent life.
Narayana Panikker or Kavalam, as he is lovingly known in artistic circles started his professional life as a lawyer at the Alappuzha Bar. He had graduated with a law degree from the Madras Law College and continued to practice for 6 years. But as they say, destiny and life had a different plan for him! As fate would have it, he was soon appointed as the Secretary of Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Academy at Thrissur, Kerala in 1961. It was as if the universe had conspired to give him what his heart desired! His association with the Academy gave him ample opportunities to explore and research on the diverse folk and classical art forms within and outside Kerala and at a national level.
His initial interest was never on directing, but more on the scripts for plays. While his first few attempts were not huge successes, he hit a chord with his audiences through his play Daivathar. This was directed by Kumara Varma and went on to become a huge success. His next initiative was under the mantle of renowned director G Aravindan. This play broke all conventional norms of theatre till that period. It deviated from the proscenium model and did way with the audience-performer divide that was a common sight in plays of that time. Avanavan Kadamba required an open auditorium with trees bearing lanterns in the background. The open stage gave more flexibility and fluidity to the actors and created a sense of involvement among the audience. Thus was born the Kavalam school of theatre which became a milestone in Kerala’s theatre sphere. His plays relied heavily on Kalaripayattu, tribal legends, folk pulses and vaaythari or oral commands. What makes his style of theatre all the more interesting and experimental is the presence of bhava or expression as a means of communication as opposed to use of language. He believed in an amalgamation of verse and visual impact to convey an idea to his audience. All his plays were built on themes that were close to real life and the varied emotions of people. His style was rooted in Bharata’s Natyashastra and found a seamless synergy between the desi or folk and margi or classical traditions of Kerala.
Kavalam worked extensively in different languages and is arguably the only dramatist to have directed plays in Sanskrit, Malayalam and Hindi. He founded the theatre troupe Sopanam which led to the formation of the renowned Bhashabharati: Centre for Performing Arts, Training and Research, in Thiruvananthapuram. Some of his notable works include Madhyamavyayogam, Kalidasa's Vikramorvasiyam, Shakuntalam , Karnabharam, Bhasa's Uru Bhangam, Swapnavasavadattam and Dootavakyam. In Malayalam, his first play was Sakshi. His affinity for Sanskrit led him to retell works by celebrated writers like Bhasa, Bodhayana, Kalidasa, Bhavabhuthi and Sakthibhadra. He has extensively travelled in Soviet Union and in Greece. One of his masterpieces is his association with Greek playwrights to produce Ilyayana, a fusion of the Indian Ramayana and Greek epic Illad. Greek plays like Jean Paul Sartre’s Trojan Women, Shakespeare’s Tempest and Rabindranath Tagore’s Chandalika and Antaryami are other significant products of his artistic endeavors. His directorial debut was through Bhasa's Madhyama Vyayogam. He was also invited to present this brilliant piece at Kalidas Samararoh in Ujjain which received a standing ovation at the venue.
Another area that Kavalam revolutionized is that of releasing Sopanasangeetham from the confines of being just a temple art. He brought this art form onto the stage as an accompaniment to Mohiniyattom performances. Till then, Mohiniyattom relied completely on Carnatic padams. Stalwarts like Bharati Sivaji and Dr Kanak Rele worked with him to make this a reality and today over 100 compositions are part of Mohiniyattom performances worldwide.
He was awarded the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award in 1983, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship in 2002 and the Padma Bhushan civilian decoration in 2007. His accolades include the Kalidas Samman (1994–1995) and the Ford Foundation Fellowship. These are all testimony to how society began to realize the true potential and genius of an artist like Kavalam, even in the midst of criticism from the reigning theatre legends of that time.