Sadanam Krishnankutty, who was awarded this year’s Kerala Kalamandalam fellowship, is one of Kathakali’s eminent actors, adept at enacting a variety of roles that always go beyond the ordinary.

Of the disciples of Pattikamthodi Ravunni Menon, the apostle of the Kalluvazhichitta, Thekinkattil Ravunni Nair was an exceptional actor and a devout teacher. He groomed two marvellous actors in Kathakali, Kalamandalam Gopi and Sadanam Krishnankutty. While Gopi established his sway in the field through immaculate portrayals of noble heroes and the incomparable Raudra Bhima, Sadanam Krishnankutty captivated Kathakali rasikas with his fabulous presentations of heroes, anti-heroes, demonic characters, the aboriginal hunter, Hanuman and even female roles such as Poothana and Lalitha.

Hailing from the culturally vibrant Cherpulassery village of Palakkad district, Krishnankutty’s zest for Kathakali scored over his interest in academics. He had his rudimentary lessons in the art form from Ravunni Nair. Since joining the Gandhiseva Sadanam, Peroor, Krishnankutty continued his training under the maverick, Keezhpadam Kumaran Nair. This helped the youngster absorb physically and mentally the structural finesse of the Kalluvazhichitta (school of highly codified acting that flourished in south Malabar) without being dogmatic.

Kumaran Nair guided his gifted disciple along the terrains of inquiry and imagination which could not be easily digested by conservative practitioners or spectators.

On completion of his course of Kathakali at Sadanam, Krishnankutty became a freelance artiste. Although he served in institutions such as Kalamandalam as instructor, provisionally, his orientation was almost fully performance-oriented. An enviable synchronisation of the face and the body with the intricate and intriguing make-up and costuming of a wide variety of characters in Kathakali is Krishnankutty’s most notable achievement. His nritta and nritya are a delightful deviation from main-stream Kalluvazhichitta. In the positioning and execution of hand-gestures and the many different kalasams, Krishnankutty commands a grace extraordinaire.

One of the remarkable qualities of this actor is that he never simulates his guru, the avant-garde Kumaran Nair, in any of the lead roles, at the physical level. Krishnankutty has an instinctive inclination towards sprightly actions and expressions. Hence, as Ravana, Keechaka, Duryodhana, Sisupala and the hunter he often outwits his colleagues through swift actions and reactions. Racy and spicy are his portrayals of the Nayakas and the Pratinayakas in scenes of sringara and hasya. Humorous he is in dealing with such characters as the hunter in ‘Kiratham’ or Hanuman in ‘Kalyanasaugandhikam’, though at times, humour turns to be a weakness rather than strength for this master of rhythm and histrionics.

Contexts are aplenty in which the dancer and actor in Krishnankutty supersede the characters he identifies with. In the mid tempo and fast tempo of Chembada or Triputa talas, his performance becomes infectious. His patappurappad in the ‘Narakasura Vadham' and his aggressive advances towards Malini as Keechaka in ‘Keechakavadham’ distantly echo those of the late titan Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair.

Krishnankutty is not one to turn down any role in Kathakali, be it kuttitharam (minor), edatharam (middle level) or adyavasanam (major). Each one he dons carries an imprint of his own. Next to Kalamandalam Gopi, his has been the most sought after Raudra Bhima in the play ‘Duryodhanavadham’. This role, brimming with theatrical niceties and loud expositions, has won for him innumerable admirers in India and outside.

T.S. Madhavankutty, who has consistently read the performance-career of Krishnankutty over a long period of time, is all praise for the actor’s dancing prowess, especially his nalamiratti. He also feels that Krishnankutty’s female characters are truly feminine. When it comes to wielding roles in experimental productions in Kathakali, one comes across a spontaneity that boldly takes on conservatism and conventions. In ‘Sapamochanam’, a play of Sadanam Harikumar's, the tone and texture of Krishnankutty’s Arjuna are something a connoisseur cannot easily forget.

For nearly half a century, Krishnankutty has been a star-actor on the Kathakali stage. The indomitable spirit and the devotion with which he rules the stage today is inconceivable for most of his colleagues and for the subsequent generation of artistes.

Krishnankutty has won prominent awards and recognitions including those of the State and Central Sangeet Natak Akademi for his outstanding contributions to the preservation and promotion of Kathakali. More recently he was honoured with the Kerala Kalamandalam Fellowship. Krishnankutty, the indefatigable hero on the Kathakali stage, belongs to an increasingly rare species of artistes for whom art is the highest mode of self-expression.