Master of the Kathakali Stage – Kottakkal Nandakumaran Nair

For over five decades, Kottakkal Nandakumaran Nair has been ruling Kathakali stages across the length and breadth of the country and abroad. It is only befitting that he is the recipient of the 2016 Kerala Kalamandalam Award for Kathakali Vesham, which is yet another golden feather in his cap or in this case his Kireedam!
Team Salabhanjika catches up with Nandakumaran Ashan for an exclusive interview. Here are excerpts from our conversation with the maestro.

You started your journey of performing arts as a student of Ottanthullal at Kalamandalam and later joined Kottakkal as a Kathakali aspirant. What prompted this decision and how has being a trained performer of two different art forms helped you on your path ?

My first exposure to Ottanthullal was in my hometown of Desamangalam when I was around eight or nine years old. During those times, it was common for Ottanthullal troupes to perform in schools as a source of entertainment for children. I chanced upon one such performance and was in awe of the way the artist connected with his audience. I realized that this is an interesting path to explore. With as much determination as my then ten year old self could gather, I joined Kalamandalam under the tutelage of Shri Divakaran Nair for four intensive years of training.

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During my time at Kalamadalam, I became acquainted with Kathakali Asan Kunchu Nair and soon developed an uncanny fascination for Kathakali. After completing my Ottanthullal training at Kalamandalam, the appeal towards Kathakali eventually led me to join Kottakkal as a student under Krishnankutty Nair Asan. It was a firm decision, though it meant rejecting an offer to join another popular Thullal troupe of the time.

I have always felt that the purpose of any art form is to communicate your ideas to others. Your creation should be able to bring happiness to those around you, though the mode of expression can differ from one individual to another. To me, Ottanthullal did not offer the space for complete creative freedom. I felt that Kathakali opened up additional avenues for artistic expression through both dance and acting. However, my training in Ottanthullal did set the right foundation and gave me an innate sense of thaalam, ragam and nritha chuvadu.

Tell us more about your time at Kottakkal.

At Kottakkal, my guru was never keen on timeframes for courses. Even though the official training period was for six years, it usually extended up till the day he feels you have mastered the art to his satisfaction. This was true in my case too and this comprehensive training has been instrumental in helping me perfect my art. Also, the sessions were devised in such a way that students had to train as male characters in the morning and as female characters in the evening. Men are commonly considered to be more energetic (at least in characters depicted in routine dance forms) whereas women are considered soft-spoken and more subdued. The Kottakkal schedule followed the biological clock that an individual is most energetic during the first half of the day. This method of training that I underwent has been helping me even today, even though I did not fully realize it at that time.

After my course, I worked under probation for a short period and at the same time continued my studies there. It took two to three years for me to establish myself as a permanent artist at Kottakkal. I was with Kottakkal for a total of 33 years and have never once stopped being a student during all those years.

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Your choice of topics or the Attakathas that you pick – be it for performances or for choreography, are unique. Do you consciously choose distinctive themes like Vamanavatharam and elements like the Mizhavu or is that a natural culmination ?

 The use of Mizhavu was more of an experiment that I had tried to bring out through the performance of Ravanothbhavam. The story traces the ascent of Ravana to power and how he brings back the lost glory of his clan. As you can imagine, this performance relies on percussion instruments to capture the frenzied mood of the character. During one of my visits to Guruvayoor long back, I had the opportunity to watch KM Shivan Namboodiri’s Koodiyattom. During his performance, while lifting up Mount Kailasa, the reverberation and beats of the Mizhavu in the background were more euphoric than the veshakkaran or artist himself. The impact of this incident lingered with me for a long time. Later in ’97, during a visit to Poland, the idea of using the Mizhavu in a Kathakali performance was reignited in my mind by Mario Cristopher Byrski, Head of Oriental Studies at Warsaw University and an ardent lover of Kathakali. I carried the idea back with me to India, discussed it with my Guru and with his blessing and approval, translated it into reality through Ravanothbhavam. However, when I do a self-assessment today, I feel that the artist in me is not entirely satisfied with the end result of that attempt.

Kottakkal Nandakumaran Nair

Vamanavatharam brings back memories of a Kalamandalam tour of Kashmir and Rajasthan during the last year of my studies there. Since the incumbent Vamanan in the troupe was more on the heavy side and I was smaller, some of the troupe members suggested my name for the role. I had to memorize my lines for the act during the train journey and that was as much rehearsing as we could manage for that performance. Later during my time at Kottakkal, I had tried to replay Vamnavatharam there. I don’t think the story had been performed at Kottakkal till then and our performance was received well.

All these were experiments of an artist during his learning phase. In fact, I was not even aware then of the possibilities of government grants and funding available for artists. As a budding artist, access to those resources may have given these experiments a much greater boost.

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While it may be hard for an artist to choose, which performance do you hold most dear to your heart ?

At the moment, I am working along with my daughter on a choreography that is also a personal favorite. It is the story of Kannaki – the legendary Tamil woman character. She destroys a whole kingdom in her anger against the unjust judgment meted out to her husband Kovalan by the king. Kannanki is one of the strongest female characters that I have come across. The tale had developed into a haunting on my mind right from the time I first heard it. My daughter Athira who is also my student and a Kathakali artist is currently pursuing her PhD. It was Athira who initiated the idea of Kannaki as a topic for her academic research. We had choreographed just two scenes for this initially. The first scene was performed by my daughter, while the second scene of the vengeful Kannaki was performed by me. Based on suggestions from well-wishers, we later approached the Central Government for allocated grants. We came to know that our papers have just recently been approved. 

With this as an encouragement, we are hoping to perform Kannaki on a much larger scale on January 14th at Shoranur. The performance is expected to be for a duration of over two hours. In fact, the practice sessions for this are underway. It is interesting that in Kerala, Kanakki is usually portrayed as Bhadrakali, with a fierce demeanor. During our initial discussions on apt visual effects for our project, my daughter was adamant that we do not stick to that norm. In her opinion with a touch of feminism in it, an angry woman does not necessarily need to change her outward appearance. Her expression of anger can be depicted in many other ways and this is what we are attempting here too. I have also incorporated a change to the story with Kannaki giving the Chilambu or anklet in Kovalan’s hands. The entire performance is one that we are definitely looking forward to.