Kothavil Ramankutty is the only craftsman who creates the wooden base for headgear and other costumes used in the art traditions of Kerala.
Art lovers the world over are captivated by the bewitching costumes used in Koodiyattam, Nangiarkoothu, Kathakali etc. But but not all of them are unaware that there is only one person on this earth who carves the entire woodwork for all these forms – the Brahma of costumes!
Sixty four-year old Kothavil Ramankutty, who lives in the interior of Vellinezhi village of Kerala, 42 kilometres from Palakkad, is hardly known to the myriad fans of the glorious art traditions of Kerala; worse, even to most of the scholars who wax eloquent about the aharya element of these forms.
Nevertheless, once you reach Vellinezhi and ask for Kothavil Ramankutty, you are guided to the exact spot. They know that the quiet and unassuming man in a dhoti, mostly confined to his home and workplace, is the sole living maestro of the costumes of traditional Kerala arts.
“Suppose on one fine morning Ramankutty decides to retire ...” even before completing the sentence, your mouth would be forcefully shut if you were saying this to a well-informed Kerala arts exponent. Because Ramankutty is the sole man who does the entire woodwork for the costumes used for Koodiyattam, Nangiarkoothu, Krishnanattam, Kathakali and other forms such as, Ottanthullal.
Making costumes - Koppu nirmanam - for these art forms is an interesting stream inseparable from the art itself. It is pure carpentry with high art at a very minute level; an amalgamation of four big ‘A’s - Art, Artistry, Artisanship and Aesthetics.
Ramankutty runs ‘Krishnan Achari Smaraka Koppu Nirmana Kendram,’ which since 2008 is being financially supported by the Centre for Koodiyattam, of the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi, Delhi. His sons, Govindankutty and Unnikrishnan, and the two disciples Byju and Krishnadas, now assist him.
Ramankutty began assisting his father, Krishnan Achari, in carpentry at the age of five, and was compelled to take up costume making as his profession, when, in 1989, his father died at the age of 59, due to acute asthma. “He had left several orders incomplete, thus putting a few Kathakali troupes and other artists in a state of panic. The Kerala Kalamandalam was badly in need of costumes and my father had already accepted an advance for the same. So I had to take it up.”
After a pause Ramankutty continues, “The profession is very hard to sustain, because it is labour intensive and fetches very little income. Every tiny part has carved carefully. Outside, the master carpenter earns Rs.800 per day, and others Rs.500 to Rs.600, and responsibility is much less. Further, jobs in the Gulf are a boon for carpenters.” According to Ramankutty, the sole benefit is the satisfaction of being in a profession that is unique.
“Due to the poor remuneration it is very difficult to get youngsters as apprentices. Shortage and high cost of wood is another threat that we face today”, he adds. Kumzhil (Gmelina arborea ) known for less weight and softness is the wood used for the costumes. Of late, attempts have been made to make the headgear etc., with fibreglass, relying on moulds made by Ramankutty, but such attempts have yet to prove their worthiness and aesthetic adaptability. “All said and done, Kumzhil is Kumzhil,” he says.
On completion of the woodwork, the pieces are sold to the institutions or Kathakali and Koodiyattam costumiers known as Chutti artists, who decorate them with colourful materials. Since this part is included in the curriculum of Chutti at most of the institutions, there is little threat to it. “Ramankutty is the sole surviving person who carves the costumes for us. During the year 1990, to preserve this invaluable artistry, the Kerala Kalamandalam started a diploma course with Ramankutty at the helm and with a few students but after two years it was wound up for unknown reasons”, laments septuagenarian Kathakali exponent and former Principal of the Kerala Kalamandalam, Guru Vazhengada Vijayan.
During the mid 1980s when I asked Ramankutty’s father, Krishnan Achari, of the distinctiveness of his profession, he said, “ I was looped into this in the 1950s, by Kathakali percussionist late Krishnankutty Poduval and Chutti exponent late Vazhengada Rama Warrier. When the latter liked a set of Hasthakadakam that I made on his request, he started persuading me to make more costumes for the Kalamandalam. At that time I was doing usual carpentry work, but soon artists of other forms too started approaching me”.
Decades ago, the regional carpenters did it for the local Chakyars and Kaliyogams (Kathakali troupes) that marked a social involvement in the then cultural arena. But things have changed now …
(The writer is the director, Centre for Koodiyattam, Thiruvananthapuram, of the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi)