Over the past 25 years, Thodayam has grown from just a club organising Kathakali performances to one that aims to imbibe the art form in its true spirit
Sleep is proving to be a hard-to-resist idea for the members of Thodayam. Yet, after all-night Kathakali performances, their legs do not lag nor their minds slacken as they walk into their cramped office at Chalapuram to discuss their quarter century journey with Kathakali. Over the past 25 years, Thodayam Kathakali Yogam, run on the steam of a handful of enthusiasts, has painstakingly created a niche for Kathakali in the cultural calendar of Kozhikode.
A bumpy ride
Tough times have been many. Creating an audience has been an uphill task; sponsorship a nightmare. Yet the healthy turn-out for the night-long recitals and full-house for ‘Rajathotsavam’, their 25th anniversary celebrations, is quiet vindication and triumph for Thodayam.
What stemmed from casual conversations during the train journey from Kozhikode to Parapanangadi by a few Kathakali enthusiasts has now grown to be synonymous with Kathakali in the region. From being mere opportunities for aficionados to watch performances, Thodayam has now grown to be a forum to discuss Kathakali academically, watch masters and promising youngsters at their best and has turned into a prestigious stage by itself.
To begin with, Thodayam was never a smooth ride. “There is a cultural vacuum in Kozhikode when it comes to traditional art forms,” says P. Mohandas, president. According to him, though Kathakali, Chakyarkoothu, Mohiniyattom and Koodiyattom have traditionally survived in other parts of Kerala and even around Kozhikode, be it Thrissur, Palakkad or parts of Malappuram, it curiously disappears at Kozhikode and resurfaces partly on reaching Kannur. It is this vacuum that Thodayam audaciously dreamt to fill in. “Before Thodayam, there were two Kathakali clubs in Kozhikode, but both did not survive,” pitches in K.N. Sivaswamy, committee member.
Despite the odds, Thodayam began in 1988 with Nalacharitam by Kalamandalam troupe with Gopi asan as Nala. Financially, it has never been easy; the members often put in from their pockets to pay the groups. Yet, all the Kathakali stars from Kalamandalam Gopi and Madavoor Vasudevan Nair to Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair and Keezhpadam Kumaran Nair and musicians such as Kalamandalam Hyder Ali, Sankaran Embranthiri and Venmani Haridas have performed for Thodayam. But those like Mohandas and Madan K. Menon, general secretary, assert the struggle never ends. “People have closed their minds to it. They believe that they will not understand Kathakali,” says Madan.
For long Thodayam kept up with one or two performances a year. When times were particularly tough, the members introduced the idea of performances at weddings. Rukminiswayamvaram at a wedding eve was a hit. Thodayam hit two birds with one throw. It brought to the city a solid performance, but got it financed by the wedding party. That proved to be Thodayam’s first step towards taking Kathakali to the people. Support also came from bodies like Chinmaya Mission were Kathakali often followed a yagna session. In the meanwhile, Thodayam also collaborated with Mohiniyattom dancer Bharti Sivaji who conducted workshops in the city.
“At Thodayam we adopt a four-pronged approach,” says Mohandas. “On the one hand there is the performance. Then we felicitate the maestros, thirdly we give a platform for young and upcoming artistes and fourthly we aim to create an audience that appreciates Kathakali,” he adds.
Moulding a generation
To create a new generation of Kathakali connoisseurs, Thodayam had to brain storm a bit. They decided to dissect Kathakali for the lay man. Any festival at Thodayam is accompanied by seminars on subjects that are in the fringes of Kathakali. Lecture-demonstartions by masters give the audience vital clues to appreciating recitals. While performances itself, like the traditional ones, often last the night.
What began with a handful of men has now grown. “We have over 300 members and importantly 60 to 70 per cent of them are youngsters,” says Madan. At Thodayam they take pride in finding young performers and promoting them. Ettumanur Kannan, Sudhir, Ravi Kumar and Sajan have all performed for Thodayam in their early years. Thodayam’s survival has also led to the birth of more Kathakali clubs in the city. Thodayam is now spurred by public interest. While the well-initiated attend the seminars, the well-informed and the curious make the audience for performances. Thodayam is now thinking ahead. Space continues to be a constraint and Mohandas says they are all set to teach the art form – the teacher and the children are set, but space is the worry. They also desire a library to stock their literature. But the pervading mood at Thodayam is of contentment. Sivaswamy sums up, “A handful of us went to college with a transistor stuck to our ears, listening to cricket commentary. Those who followed the game and the commentary then were few. At that point no one thought it would grow to be so popular. Hope the same happens to Kathakali.”