A wave of nostalgia and gratitude pervaded the space that hosted the meeting of over 50 eminent artists and alumni of Kalakshetra here on Sunday. They had gathered to celebrate the 80th birthday of veteran Kathakaliexponent K.P. Kunhiraman, who not only mastered the intricate nuances of the art form but also transmitted its glory and charm to cultures across the seas.

Long-time associates of the artist spoke about his various performances.

“He would practise so hard, and go right down to the beat of taka -takita, taka-takita, to get it right,” said dancer A. Janardhan. The splendour of Kathakali illustrated in a language of spectacle, mimetic gesture and movement embellished him, while he, donning the roles of various gods, heroes and beasts, filled the stage with his charisma, they recalled, in the presence of Mr. Kunhiraman and his wife Katherine. The couple has been running ‘Kalanjali – Dances of India' in the U.S. for the past three decades.

“When he played Hanuman, he became the monkey god himself, practically bringing forth the theoretical lessons on bhava and abhinaya," said Assunta Sebastein from the U.S., a disciple of the veteran dancer. “Some people are just born with greatness and he is one of them,” said art critic Gowri Ramnarayan.

“He was in his early twenties when he played Lord Shiva, in Kumarasambhava, while Rukmini Devi, much older, played Parvati,” recalled dancer V.P. Dhananjayan, recalling the many monumental productions of Kalakshetra that Kunhiraman was part of. “While many commented that he looked like her son in the performance, Athai's (Rukmini Devi) response remained — nobody knows Shiva's age, he is ageless,” he said.

Another artist and disciple of Mr. Kunhiraman, Barbara Framm from France, recalling her dance lessons with him said he was the heartbeat of Kalakshetra then. “Unless he had something very important to transmit, he would not speak. His power was in his quietness,” said Asha Pillai, another disciple.

His immense dedication to the art form, his meticulous movements and expressions used to narrate a story, apart from his excellence in the other aspects of Kathakali made him an artist par excellence, the dancers said. “He was a craftsman too, who deftly repaired and designed crowns for the performance,” said Mr. Dhananjayan. “Few know that the artificial chutti that we use today is his contribution,” he added. The energy of creativity Kalakshetra fosters in its artists is unique, said photographer and journalist Sadanand Menon.

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Vasudha VenugopalJune 28, 2012