The last link with Krishnanattam, the forerunner of Kathakali that originated in the 17th century, became extinct with the demise of octogenarian Guru Moothedath Krishnankutty Nair, on November 26. With Krishnankutty Nair ends the most significant era of Krishnanattam and a generation of thespians of the form.
The period from the 15th to the 18th century, was a golden era for art and literature of Kerala. In 1654, Manaveda Raja, the Zamorin of Kozhikode, composed Krishnageeti and based on this text gradually the devotional dance stream, Krishnanattam, in praise of the blue-coloured Lord emerged.
In 1958 the then Zamorin dedicated the entire Krishnanattam troupe, owned and patronised by his family for three centuries, to the Guruvayur temple. Moothedath Krishnankutty Nair and Kollengat Velayudhan Nair (1932) were among them. Velayudhan Nair, six years younger to Krishnankutty Nair, passed away on March 7, 2010.
Since its surrender by the Zamorin, the art of Krishnanattam has been managed and patronised by the temple administration known as Guruvayur Devaswom under the State Government; the artists are employees of the temple and Krishnanattam is listed as one of the main offerings at the temple.
These two masters were considered as the only two crucial key holders of the pristine tradition of the art as later Krishnanattam artists started undergoing training in Kathakali that literally interprets the verses (padartha abhinaya). This began to influence Krishnanattam substantially – in both acting techniques and rendering of vocal music. Krishnanattam, in its original form, is a dance of devotion. The dancer’s footwork is the focus in Krishnanattam, while in Kathakali it’s the face.
Krishnankutty Nair was initiated into Krishnanattam in 1933 at the Zamorin’s abode in Kozhikode, when he was seven, under the renowned master Palakkal Achuthan Nair, who headed the troupe when it was surrendered to the temple. After 53 years of performing career, in 1986, Krishnankutty Nair retired from the Guruvayur Devaswom. Nevertheless, on special demand from the organisers, he performed. His last performance was in March 2005, when he donned the role of Kuchela at the annual Krishnanattam festival at the Thrissur Thiruvambady temple.
Due to ill-health, at the advanced age he mostly handled comparatively easier roles such as Kuchela and Yavana. Krishnanattam aficionados thronged to see Kuchela, especially the celebrated journey of Kuchela to Dwaraka to meet the old companion. Nair’s every step was marked by boundless devotion, as he chanted ‘Narayana Narayana.’ He so mesmerised the audience that they began chanting the same! And after every performance when devotees and art lovers met him in the green room to pay their respects, the veteran master would smile like a child!
At the pinnacle of his career Nair was greatly popular for his parts of Krishna in ‘Kamsavadham’ and ‘Swayamvaram’ – masterly roles. It was perhaps a character that he donned maximum number of times in his more than five decades of active artistic life. The antithetical roles that won him equal fame were those of Jarasandhan and Sisupalan and also dignified characters such as Vasudevan and Udhavar.
When this writer met Krishnankutty Nair a few years ago to document his past, he expressed helplessness as he could not recollect much of it. He was leading a quiet life, spending most of his time at a telephone booth near the Guruvayur temple, owned by a family member. Obviously, the devotees from the length and breadth of the country who happened to step into the booth to make calls were unaware of the fact that the humble old man sitting at the counter was one of the few significant pillars of Indian performing arts traditions who danced the major part of his life in front of their favourite Lord donning the role of the Lord Himself!
Though, like his long term associate late Velayudhan Nair, no national honours came his way till his last breath at the age of 85, the vibrations that he created through his magnificent performances still resonate at the precincts of Guruvayur temple and in the hearts of aficionados.