Chutti specialist Kalamandalam Kunhikrishnan on four decades of service to the actor.

The International Centre for Kathakali is exploding with sound. Simultaneous rehearsals for the institute’s annual celebration slated from November 4 to 10 are in full swing in two halls. Upstairs, as youngsters of Delhi, supported by their gurus and the Sopana musicians, go through their moves, a percussion lesson is underway in the basement. Soon, though, the basement is inundated with young children. The percussionists are swept out, and the school brigade goes through the obeisance to the earth and to the guru. The musicians are in place and one more rehearsal begins. In a corner of the hall, unperturbed by the decibel level is a diverse group bending over earthen pots. These are the chutti students, practising the complex art of Kathakali make-up.

In the midst of the circle is the diminutive Kalamandalam P. Kunhikrishnan, ICK’s Vice Principal and head of the make-up and costume department. As the students cut the white paper that forms the contours of a Kathakali actor’s face below the chin — the chutti, which was once made of rice paste — he watches carefully but also proudly. “Many of them are also Kathakali artistes,” he says fondly.

In Kerala that gave birth to Kathakali, it is now becoming the trend for performers to also learn the art of make-up for the various characters, says Kunhikrishnan, but Delhi has led the way.

This is in keeping with the penchant Delhi’s Kathakali Centre has demonstrated in bringing innovations into the age-old art — including the large number of female students, especially in male roles. In the costume and make-up department, much of this zeal came from Kunhikrishnan, who came to Delhi as a 19-year-old fresh from his diploma from Kerala Kalamandalam.

“I pushed them to not sit idle after rehearsals. I told them just spend half an hour learning this too.” At the coming annual festival, four of his students will perform their arangetram.

The arangetram of a Kathakali artist does not mark the entry of a prepared artiste on stage but the beginning of serious training. Be it a Kathakali exponent or a make-up artist, the arangetram is performed in about six months from the first lesson. Only after the arangetram can the artist use the actual costume, bells, etc., and, in the case of the make-up artists, only then can they apply the colours on a human face. Hence the use of earthenware pots.

As a youth, Kunhikrishnan had a ringside view of the growth of the ICK. “I came to Delhi in 1974. We were in Old Rajender Nagar then. There were some 75 students, and we did about 40-45 programmes a year. I got the chance to do chutti for great gurus who came from Kerala, like Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair and a lot of others,” says the artist, who will retire this year after a four-decade career, during which he says he has done make-up and costuming for over 5000 characters.

While the senior gurus stuck to the old traditions of costuming and make-up — requiring, for example, 40 pieces of one square metre of starched cotton cloth around the waist to give girth to the costume, and wooden headdresses that weigh several kilos — Kunhikrishnan and his colleagues have worked to make the dress lighter. While mounds of cotton cloth are piled in a corner of the costume room, there are also plastic gunny bags. “This is very light. We use it for the children. But the senior gurus will feel as if there is no proper anchor around the waist.”

The centre also uses kiritams (headdresses) made of fibre which are much lighter. Showing the difference between the traditional and innovated prop, he says there is an even lighter version made of foam for child artists. Bells too — which in Kathakali are worn not just round the ankles but higher on the leg too — have been made lighter. “In Kerala there is no concession, but I am always thinking how to make it more bearable for the children,” he smiles.

An expert in repairing and decorating the costumes and props (whose basic forms come from Kerala but are coloured and ornamented under his care), Kunhikrishnan says a kiritam costs around Rs.45,000 and full costume set about Rs.1,30,000, since the ornamentation is in real silver. However he also shows some in which steel decorations are used. “On stage you can’t tell the difference. In fact, the steel shimmers more and doesn’t tarnish.”

Apart from teaching the techniques of drawing and shading (thepu), mixing colours, placing the chutti, etc., he says he also explains the significance of the tradition. “How did this colour come about, why do we still use mineral colours if other colours are available — these things have to be explained.” Most of the questions come from the non-Indian students at the centre, he observes.

The chuttikaran or greenroom-in-charge is like the performer’s shadow, totally committed to the actor’s preparation for hours before, during and after the performance. After 40 years of being a behind-the-scenes pillar, Kunhikrishnan’s move back to Kerala after retirement is not likely to be easy for him or the centre. While his colleague Sunil Kumar will take over here, Kunhikrishnan is characteristically modest about his own future. “I have a few offers. We will see.”