The 22 death anniversary of Mani Madhava Chakyar (1899-1990), the towering exponent of Koodiyattom, falls on January 14.
The Music Academy, Chennai! The December Season of the late 1980s! L.S. Rajagopalan, the arts scholar from Kerala was presenting a lec-dem, when one of the lighting technicians in front called out to him and said, “Several years ago you had brought an old man who performed abhinaya with his eyes. I have watched a lot of abhinaya from close quarters at this venue but I've never seen such a pair of wonderful eyes. Is he still alive?”
LSR, who forgot to record the technician's name, recalled the exchange in 1990, when we were mourning the demise of Mani Madhava Chakyar, who was ‘old man' referred to. The said lecture demonstration was on December 27, 1973. Chakyar was then 74 years old and not in very good health. T. Balasaraswathi presided over that year's annual conference of the Music Academy and the audience included scholars such as Dr. Kapila Vatsyayan.
Chakyar had presented a small segment which included Ravana's thoughts about Sita, her tearful longing for Rama and her helplessness at the sight of Ravana. He showcased all these emotions through nethra abhinaya and a few facial expressions, but without using any hand gestures. The peak of abhinaya exposition through ‘nethra' dovetailed, as he went on to the famous ‘Sikhini Salabham' act of the play, ‘Subhadradhananjayam,' into his portrayal of the wonder of Arjuna at the sight of unusual scenes at the hermitage in the forest -- some flies falling into the flames, some flying away freely without getting burned, tigress feeding its cubs, an elephant calf trying to pull out the canine teeth of a wild lion, mistaking it for a lotus stalk, and a cobra putting a mongoose to sleep by licking it …
It was Chakyar who initiated the dissemination of these acts and more such ancient treasures to the world outside Kerala and pioneered today's practice of presenting a single episode or a sloka in minute detail in a short performance.
On Republic Day, in 1974, Chakyar woke up in his his small house in Lakkidi village, in Palakkad, to the news that he was to be the first Koodiyattom exponent to receive the Padmashri.
Since 1964 Chakyar had been to places such as Delhi and Benaras for performances, and the same year he won the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, the first ever national recognition to this art form, followed by the Akademi's Fellowship, Government of India's Emeritus Fellowship and Kalidasa Academy Fellowship, all in 1982, and the Thulasi Samman of the Government of MP in 1987, among others.
In 1992 when I came to know that one of my good friends and an ex-army jawan Rahavan Nambiar is the son of late Mani Madhava Chakyar I was taken aback. The offspring of the emperor of abhinaya in the army? Noticing my shock, Nambiar said: “I was the seventh of four sons and four daughters. The small sums earned by father from the temples where he had the traditional right to perform, were meagre and he was struggling to support the family.
Eldest brother ( Padmashri P.K. Narayanan NambiarMizhavu maestro) was already accompanying father; he often carried the entire luggage including the heavy Mizhavu because he was unable to afford an assistant.”
Second son P.K.G. Nambiar (exponent of Koothu in both Malayalam and Hindi) became a Hindi scholar and the third (late) Damodaran Nambiar provided support for local performances.
“Some times he earned just 10 rupees or less, not enough even to meet the bus fares to the temple and back, and walked miles enduring leech bites; but it was a committed ritual for him”, reminisced Narayanan Nambiar. Thus Chakyar lived a large part of his life as an unrecognised and poor artist.
As an actor he was equally at ease both as the hero and the court jester (Vidhooshak). And whether the presentation was at a small temple or at the Rashtrapati Bhavan, his commitment was the same. For performances at venues such as Benaras he gave explanations in Sanskrit.
Sanskrit scholar Christopher Byrski (Warsaw University, former Polish Ambassador to India), the first foreign student of Koodiyattom was trained under Mani. Anna Lopatowska, a known film and television actress in Poland, and the first female foreigner to learn the art of Koodiyattom, was also groomed under Mani Madhva Chakyar.
(The writer is the director, Centre for Koodiyattom, Thiruvananthapuram, a wing of the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi)