Remembering Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair on his birth centenary year.

Kerala is the only Indian State that can boast of four stylised classical arts traditions and several folk and ritual arts legacies. Of these Kutiyattam and Mudiyettu are already recognised by the UNESCO as ‘Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity.’ Nevertheless, no one cared to record the art and artists for posterity.

The late Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair and his performances have not been documented either. This (2014) is his birth centenary year. There is some confusion over his date of birth, but not his death - which was on August 15, 1990.

Using the freedom that I enjoyed with him (by virtue of being from Kannur, the place he was from also, apart from being a Kathakali aficionado who followed his performances), I once asked him about his date of birth. Krishnan Nair asan said, “On the Makham star of the month Meenam, because those days people followed the local calendar. Birthday celebrations were only for the rich…,” and added, “possibly in the year 1089”.

The Kolla varsham (vernacular calendar of Kerala) starts from C-825 and the year begins with the Malayalam month Chingam that falls between August-September. Thus his birth centenary is on April 7 (Gregorian calendar), which as per Kolla varsham is on April 11. In 1984, his 70th birthday was celebrated on April 7 by his well-wishers and fans.

Birth date

Krishnan Nair’s granddaughter, the Mohiniyattam dancer Smitha Rajan, confirmed that his birth date was April 7, and as per the vernacular calendar it was April 11.

The stalwart was from a poor Nair family in Cheruthazham (Kannur). He was drawn to the art after watching a Kathakali performance when he was young. Varanakkot Subramanian Nambootirippad, the local landlord, instructed Guru Chandu Panicker to train him. Later, looking back, Krishnan Nair recalled, “in a way it ensured my daily meal.”

During a practice session, he fell and broke his thighbone. This shattered Krishnan Nair as he was bed-ridden for months. But when Panicker blessed and consoled him by saying, “You will be alright soon, in Kathakali you are going to be like butter in curdled milk,” those words were like “nectar” to him and he said, “…believe it or not, my recovery was fast and I resumed my training within a few months.”

During that time, Kerala poet laureate Vallathol Narayana Menon, happened to see his performance. Bowled over by his artistry, the poet got him enrolled as one of the first students of Kerala Kalamandalam. This second innings as a Kathakali trainee was the turning point in his personal and professional life.

He got the chance to train under Pattikkamtoti Ravunni Menon. Guru Kunju Kurup also taught him. Later, he did netra abhinaya under Mani Madhava Chakyar. While this training substantially helped him, it earned Chakyar the title, ‘the master who gave eyes to Kathakali.’ It was at Kalamandalam that he met the late Mohiniyottam guru Kalyanikutty Amma, who became his wife and after the wedding the couple moved out.

During his formative years, Krishnan Nair came to be known as Poothana Krishnan, a rare distinction that he earned for outstanding portrayals of Poothana (Poothanamoksham). Shortly after that, when he started handling all sorts of roles remarkably, Kathakali lovers passionately hailed him as ‘Kalamandalam.’ Once, while honouring him, the then Kochi King publicly addressed him as ‘Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair.’ This was extremely unusual as during that time members of the affluent clan addressed Kathakali artists only by their first names or nicknames.

Nala and Bahuka, Dharmaputra, Karna and Rugmangada, all in pacha type, and Keechaka and Ravana (Balivijayam and Rambhapravesham), kathi roles, were among his marvellous portrayals. Vividness marked every performance of his that attracted both connoisseurs and lay persons.

It was an experience to watch his Nala along with Gopi as Pushkara in ‘Nalacharitam Randam Divasam’ and his partnership with the late thespians, Kutamaloor Karunakaran Nair and Kottakkal Shivaraman in female roles. At times he played to the gallery too as he was confident about his mukha abhinaya (facial expressions).

During the latter part of his artistic life, Krishnan Nair compromised with the nritta elements focussing on his large expressive face and eyes. He managed technically demanding roles such as Dharmaputhra of Krimeeravadham, with limited physical strain.

Once in 1985, when I politely asked him about this in a private chat, impishly asan retorted, “Are you not aware that Kathakali earns me my bread and as an artist I am supposed to ‘entertain’ the gathering to ensure my next booking?” and there was a sarcastic emphasis on the word ‘entertain.’

He was a pioneer among his clan, along with Kavungal Chathunni Panicker, who helped raise the status of Kathakali artists from being mere ill-paid entertainers.

Krishnan Nair was the very first Kathakali actor widely accepted and adored throughout Kerala. For lovers of the art form, he was the sole confluence of the ancient Kallatikkotan (northern), more stylised and further technically set Kalluvazhi (Pattikkamtoti) and Kaplingatan (southern) legacies of the art. He was honoured with Padmasri.

His role play reminded connoisseurs of the following lines from the Kutiyattam play ‘Subhadradhananjayam’:

“Soundaryam sukumarata madhurata kanthirmanoharita

Srimatam mahimeti sargavibhavan nishesanarigunan

Etasyamupayujya durvidhataya dinah paramatmabhuh

Srstum vanchati cetkaroti punara pyatreeva bhikshatanam”

(Brahma first created her form by collecting all the most beautiful ingredients that characterise a pretty woman, like beauty (soundaryam), majesty (sukumarata), sweetness (madhurata), intelligence (kanti), attractiveness (manoharita), grace (srimata) and royalty (mahima) and most aesthetically composed all these into the form. Brahma was extremely satisfied with his creation but later, to create another beautiful woman, the creator had to beg her to share a few of her exotic qualities because he had run out of components.)

Interestingly, Krishnan Nair almost always used to depict this sloka in his manodharma while enacting the role of Nala in ‘Nalacharitam randam divasam,’ eulogising the exquisite beauty of his bride Damayanti, and often in ‘Rugmangadacharitam,’ where Rugmangada referred to Mohini.

Unfortunately for the history of the art, Nair and his work went undocumented. During 1988, the late Protima Bedi (Nrityagram), who was asan’s great fan, wanted to record his most significant performances spread over five nights. But the fee he demanded was quite high. So she asked me to negotiate with him. After a lot of deliberation, he agreed to cut his fee by half but even then, the sum he asked for covered her total budget, so the idea was dropped.

For lack of a good fee, he never even allowed David Bolland, who he knew well, to record him and his work. When I asked Bolland, the first to initiate Kathakali documentation, why he omitted Nair, he replied, “My footages are for posterity, entirely at my own expense, out of my love for the art. I have little funds to meet his demands and also cannot discriminate among the artists.”

Being an exponent whose priority was performance, asan could not groom a disciple of merit, except Margi Vijayakumar, today’s reigning star in female roles, who underwent advance training under him.

My last interaction with Krishnan Nair was during late June, 1990, at his residence in Trippunithura. After a brief chat, he repeated the words he used to say whenever we met during those days, but this time with emotion. “I have practically lost the sight of one eye, God knows when I’ll lose the other too…Is it noticeable?” I noticed tear drops rolling down. The thick dark clouds that had gathered that evening on the horizon were reflected on his face, the face that had illuminated innumerable Kathakali nights. Soon, it began to rain heavily. Extremely uneasy, I blurted out, “No, never asan.

(The writer is the Director, Centre for Kutiyattam, Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi)