The world of Kathakali mourns the death of Kottakkal Sivaraman who specialised in female roles with aplomb.

Little did the teacher of Kottakkal Arya Vidya Sale school PSV Natya Sangham realise that the orphaned boy he took over for training, giving him food and clothing, would turn out to be one of the greatest masters of Stree Vesham (impersonating female roles) in Kathakali. Kottakkal Sivaraman passed away less than a month ago, leaving the Kathakali world all the poorer.

Right from the time of Kunju Kurup, who excelled in ‘rasabhinaya', Kottakkal Sivaraman handled female roles. Not that he was equipped for them specially. He strayed into this field of the dance. His career started with playing male roles, for which he was trained by Kunju Nair for ‘kuttikaram' and ‘idataram' roles which were minor. His debut in a female role was as Sita in “Lavanasuravadham” in 1949 with the great Vazhangadu Kunju Nair as Hanuman. He had stepped into a role because of certain unavoidable circumstances, and proved such a hit that the entire Kathakali community was astonished.

Yet another instance when greatness was thrust on him was when Kunju Kurup received the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi award and Nalacharitam, one of the greatest of Kathakali plays, was staged, with Kunju Kurup in the main role as Nala. Kuttanur Karunakara Panicker who was to play the role of Damayanti the heroine, could not reach in time and Sivaraman being the only person available on the spot was asked to step into the role. He did so hesitantly.

The audience was transported and all fell in love with the charming heroine. Yet another instance when destiny seemed to intervene was in a Kerala temple when Balakrishnan Nair who was to play Mohini in Rukmangada was unable to for some unknown reason and again Sivaraman deputised with his guru in the main role. Every time chance had played a role in making Kathakali aficionados recognise the fact that one who was a natural for female roles was right under their nose.

In the early 1970s, Sivaraman was asked to play the role of Kunti and the daunting prospect was to play against the legendary Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair as Karnan. Mankulam Vishnu Namboodiri while going to the Pampa for his holy dip, explained the nuances of the role to Sivaraman. Once again the young man astonished the audience with his sensitive portrayal of the role he had been asked to render at the last minute.

Sivaraman was now accepted as a rare talent for stree vesham. He often acted as Kunti against Kalamandalam Gopi as Karna, as Damayanti in “Nalacharitam” and as Sairandhri in “Keechaka Vadham”, giving to each role a special dimension. Over the years he brought about changes in costume and abhinaya for these roles, which became an unwritten but accepted part of Kathakali.

The pair of Kalamandalam Gopi (as the hero) and Sivaraman in the female lead, became the royal couple of the Kathakali stage for years. With the vocal support of leading singers like Shankaran Embrandiri, Hyder Ali and Venmani Haridas when this royal couple took the stage, Kathakali lovers were transported to a different world. In 2008, Sivaraman was specially awarded for his lifetime work with female characters. Constant reading of epics and keen analysis of each role he played made him give these characters an added finesse.

When Sivaraman left this world, the Kathakali world mourned. Today's stree vesham has none of the stylised strength which Sivaraman brought to bear on his enactment. Instead one finds mannerisms taking over — perhaps influenced by the celluloid world in Kerala. In Kathakali though the female roles are very small, they have an assertive character and are an important part of the plot and action of a play. Every time one watches the contemporary stree vesham depictions, one is struck by nostalgia for the days when Sivaraman did these roles and one wonders, will the Kathakali scene have the good fortune of another Kottakkal Sivaraman who brought to stree vesham such burnished glory?