Koodiyattam artiste Kalamandalam Sindhu can't stop talking about her chosen profession. The actor and teacher chats about the art form which she “grew to love.”
Listening to Kalamandalam Sindhu wax lyrical about Koodiyattom and Nangiarkoothu is like watching a kid in a candy shop. It's fascinating to observe the petite artiste's frame come alive with excitement; her eyes sparkling, her face animated with easy, earnest smiles, with dimples flashing, and her elegant hands, perhaps unwittingly, flowing into one mudra after another as she chatters non-stop about her tryst with Koodiyattom, in an endearing Thrissur accent that does not seem to have faded despite living and working in Thiruvananthapuram for the past several years. Less than five minutes into the interview, it's not hard, even for the uninitiated, to make out how passionate this rising star is about this art form, which is the world's oldest surviving Sanskrit theatre tradition. It's surprising then to hear that Koodiyattom was not Sindhu's first love.
“Actually, it was my father, Mukundan Nair, who was more passionate about Koodiyattom. I was more into Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattom. We lived in a village called Nelluvaya in Thrissur, surrounded by classical arts and artistes. I grew up watching Kathakali, Koothu, Koodiyattom, and so on that was regularly staged at the famous Nelluvaya Dhanwanthari Moorthy temple. But I was always only an observer and never thought that I would choose one of them as my profession. It was my father, active on the local theatre circuit, who insisted that I apply to study Kooodiyattom at Kalamandalam. The interview itself was a long shot because I did not know Sanskrit, which was one of the requisites for the course. Despite that I got in, thanks to Kalamandalam Narayanan Nair, who taught maddalam at the institution, and Kalamandalam Devaki, Ottanthullal's first female artiste, both Nelluvaya natives who seemed to have faith in me as an artiste,” recalls Sindhu.
Despite the handicap
That was in 1992, and despite the “handicap” of not knowing Sanskrit, “which is a huge, huge deal” in the world of Koodiyattom, Sindhu went on to excel in the art form, completing a diploma, and a post diploma too at the institution, specialising in rare female roles in Koodiyattom and Nangiarkoothu under the guidance of Kalamandalam Rama Chakyar, Kalamandalam Sivan Namboothiri, Kalamandalam Girija Devi and Kalamandalam Shailaja. “Not knowing Sanskrit is a drawback, yes. But, honestly, I've come to realise that my knowledge of Sanskrit is no less than that of many of my contemporaries (laughs); not that it's anything to celebrate. Over the years, though, I've become familiar with Sanskrit texts and words. I've taught myself to read Sanskrit but cannot understand all the nuances. If in doubt, I don't hesitate to ask Sanskrit scholars or my senior colleagues, all of whom are always willing to lend a hand,” says the 34-year-old artiste.
While at Kalamandalam, Sindhu was the only one among the Koodiyattom graduates of 1997 to be selected to one of the four coveted spots for a one-year super specialisation in performing arts at the institution, because of which she got the opportunity to train exclusively under the inimitable Rama Chakyar.
“I'm very fortunate to be one of Raman asan's disciples. He's a genius par excellence. In his kalari, perfection in mudras is most important. I realised that whatever I had thought was right in terms of my mudras, adherence to chitta (convention), and so on, was far from right! Raman asan taught me to deconstruct every nuance, how to bring out the facets of each word with the appropriate mudras,” she says, explaining the concept by demonstrating the differences between the mudras for the words cheytholu (please do) and the more courteous cheythalum.
Later on, armed with a scholarship from the Ministry of Human Resources, Sindhu also trained for two years in Nangiarkoothu under Usha Nangiar, whom she counts as the other biggest influence in her life.
“In the late 90s, I had accompanied Usha chechi for a performance in Bombay (Mumbai). That's when I realised that there was so much more to Nangiarkoothu than the few excerpts from Sreekrishnacharitam that was part of our syllabus at Kalamandalam. I earned a lot of flak for choosing to ‘defect' to the other style and complete my scholarship with Usha chechi, who is an innovator par excellence. I have no regrets. But it was a decision based on my circumstances at the time, and choosing to do it at Kalamandalam was not an option then. Those two years, though, were some of the most fruitful of my life. When Raman asan staged Naganandam (an excerpt from Sreekrishnacharitam) after a gap of 44 years, Usha chechi played the Nayika, and I got the role of the principal Chedi (friend),” remembers Sindhu, who works as an instructor in Koodiyattam and Nangiarkoothu at Margi, Thiruvananthapuram.
“I won't say I am a great performer, but I love to perform. I think I am a good teacher, because my students seem to enjoy my classes. As it is, Koodiyattom is not the easiest thing to learn and because of that I'm not a strict disciplinarian when teaching. I grew to love the art form because my teachers were never tough and I find that students are much more receptive if you are gentle with them,” says Sindhu, who lives with her husband, Sasikumar, and son, Sreehari.
Sindhu choreographed Bhadrakalicharitam Nangiarkoothu based on the Devi Mahatmyam in 2010. The artiste has taken up the challenge of enacting the whole of Sreekrishnacharitham Nangiarkoothu as a series at one venue on a monthly basis (at Thanjavur Ammaveedu, Thiruvananthapuram). She has presented Nangiarkoothu and Koodiyattom in many venues across the nation and also in France (twice), Germany, Holland and in Singapore.