David Bolland passed away recently, after dedicating the better part of his life to Kathakali, his camera capturing the art and the artists.
What makes David Bolland (1919-2012), a British, who passed away recently, so special to India? He was a pioneer in documenting, at his own expense, live performances of Kathakali and Cholliyattam, along with their training and practices. No other institution or individual in the country has captured the art on camera so extensively. Today Bolland's recordings from 1950 to 1990 are invaluable treasures of our art traditions. Thus with the demise of Bolland, an era in the history of Kathakali and its documentation ends. His endeavour started at a time when sound recording was not available.
Born in 1919 in Cairo, making amateur documentary was Bolland's passion from childhood. He filmed the Royal Jubilee of 1935 and the Coronation of George VI in 1937. In 1939, David joined the army when the Second World War broke out. He was an officer in the 53rd (Welsh) Division, and his meritorious service earned him an MBE (Military).
“When the war ended in 1945, I took discharge from the army, and, in the following year sailed to India to take up a job with Peirce Leslie & Co, whose business covered tea, coffee, rubber, insurance and shipping,” David had said during one of our earlier meetings.
In 1948, he moved to Kerala. From 1950, David lived in Calicut (now Kozhikode) of erstwhile Malabar for 17 years until he moved to Cochin (Kochi) as the Managing Director of the company.
His first encounter with a Kathakali performance happened in Kozhikode (1954), in which guru Kunju Kurup had the lead role. “I did not know that he was a legendary artist,” David had stated.
Later, David recorded, “I had been working in Kerala for six years before I saw Kathakali for the first time. At that time, a few foreigners living in India neither understood, nor wanted to understand, an exotic and abstruse art like this; it was long before tourists came to Kerala, and there were no overseas students at any of the teaching institutions. Strange as it may seem now, few people in the West had ever heard of Kathakali. The performance was in Calicut where I lived, and although it was fascinating and mesmerising, the action on the stage seemed interminable and I was soon rather bored, as I had no idea what was going on. That would have been my only experience of Kathakali had I not had the good fortune to meet Mr. K.P.S. Menon, who, I later discovered, was an authority on the art and the author of many books on the subject.”
Sense and sensibility
Menon persuaded David to see more performances, took him behind the stage to see the actors being made up, told him the story of the play and explained the action all of which enthralled him. And he began filming the dance form. In 1971, David retired from the company and went back to the U.K. However, he kept up his association with Kathakali and came to Kerala on several occasions, until 1991, to record performances and donated the copies to artists. Since his wife, Peggy, was worried about his health, it was my duty to write him a formal letter of invitation explaining the importance of such performances and the necessity of documenting it. On a few occasions, he would draft the letter himself and post it to me so that I could copy it in my handwriting and send it back to him. Such was his passion for Kathakali. As a token of his respect for the art, he donated a corpus fund to the Kerala Kalamandalam to annually award the best acting student with the David Bolland Gold Medal.
While in India, David also served as the Unofficial Correspondent to the Deputy High Commissioner of the U.K., and was responsible for all consular activities for which he was later honoured with an OBE (Order of the British Empire-Civil).
After returning to the U.K., he settled at Brent Knoll, a picturesque village in Bridge Water of Somerset County. He bought a big house and named it ‘Malabar.' He even got a small theatre and an editing studio constructed.
The entire set of Kathakali costume that he displayed at ‘Malabar' was later donated to the British Museum in Bristol.
David made 18 films on Indian culture in addition to his Kathakali documentaries. His first film, ‘Masque of Malabar,' and its shorter version, ‘Malabar Masque,' won 26 awards at international amateur film festivals. He was the producer, scriptwriter, editor, cinematographer, director and provided the voice over too.
Non-Keralite Kathakali enthusiasts consider his 1980 book, ‘A Guide to Kathakali,' awaiting its fourth edition, as gospel. Last year, David handed over the copyright of the book to me.
One of his invaluable documentaries is on Cholliyattam, of all the technically intricate and stylised Kathakali roles performed by the late Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair. The master had also published manuals (titled ‘Kathakali Vesham') on the training and acting methodology. Today, David's footage and Nair's manuals are reference sources for practitioners and scholars of the art.
David donated his entire archive to the Rose Bruford College in Kent, not far from London. He also gave a set of his footages to me, which are kept at the David Bolland Performing Arts Centre, a trust that I formed in 2004 to make it available to any one for academic purpose.
David had almost completed his autobiography, ‘Never a Dull Moment,' in eight volumes. Of these, volume three is an account of his first 12 years in India, 1946-57, and the 554 letters that he wrote to his mother between 1939-1957, all of which offer glimpses of history and life in the two countries.
When I met him in July last, he was past 92, fragile and mostly confined to the house. His daughter Diana, the Sheffield-based child psychiatrist, Dr. Seena, who is producing a documentary on him (The legend of ‘Malabar') and I spent a few quality days with him. When I asked him about staying alone, he replied, “I never feel lonely or bored; I watch a Kathakali tape of Ramankutty (Nair) or Padmanabhan (Nair)”.
(The writer is Director, Centre for Kutiyattam, Thiruvananthapuram, of the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi.)