Veteran Kathakali and Bharatanatyam guru A. Janardhanan remembers his brother disciple K.P. Kunhiraman who passed away recently.

There is a sweet music to nostalgia, even if it is laced with sorrow. As veteran Kathakali and Bharatanatyam exponent A. Janardhanan speaks of U.S.-based maestro K.P. Kunhiraman, whose demise earlier this month saddened the art community across the world, he conjures images of a more peaceful time…a time of dedication and of no ambition but to excel.

Of the four young boys from Kerala who, after training in Kathakali and Bharatanatyam, gradually became pillars of Rukmini Devi Arundale’s Kalakshetra during the mid-20th Century, Kunhiraman was the eldest. Son of the legendary Kathakali maestro Ambu Panikkar Asan who had taught many of the students who became senior teachers at Kalakshetra, Kunhiraman came to Kalakshetra after his father’s demise on the request of Rukmini Devi.

It was Ambu Panikar who had recommended Chandu Panikkar to take his place teaching Kathakali, notes Janardhanan. “He held my father in high esteem.” Almost in a reverential return of the favour, Chandu Panikkar trained the young Kunhiraman in Kathakali. The family feeling did not end there. “My father would say, you four are my sons in Kathakali,” says Janardhanan. If Kunhiraman was the eldest and Janardhanan the youngest, the middle two were C.K. Balagopal and V.P. Dhananjayan.

Before Janardhanan himself joined Kalakshetra, he had seen Kunhiraman along with two other students of his father — Rajamani and Dayanandan — spend the holidays training under the asan at his home in Kerala.

“I used to enjoy watching them practice. They would perspire like anything, then apply oil and do exercises till they were exhausted.” He would watch fascinated as they went through the unique Kathakali massage.

Having seen Kunhiraman on these regular visits, it was only when Janardhanan joined Kalakshetra a few years later that he saw him next. “He was a handsome young boy at that time. He was helping my father to teach the basic techniques (of Kathakali), like jumps and bending, etc. I used to call him Kunhiraman etta (elder brother).”

Chandu Panikkar was particular that all four of his ‘sons’ learn Bharatanatyam too. The Kalakshetra campus was then located in Chennai’s Adyar neighbourhood (in the premises of the Theosophical Society). “We would all go in a procession — my father, Kunhiraman, Dhananjayan, Balagopal and me early in the morning to Kalakshetra.” It is impossible to recreate that feeling of bonhomie now, says the veteran

“Work would start at 7.30 a.m., but our day started somewhere around 2.45,” he explains. The four boys would go to the “mirror cottage” to practise. Then they would take coffee for the asan, and lessons would begin later. All four were in the same class, though Kunhiraman, being senior, also helped in training and correcting.

According to the schedule, class began at 9.15 and was supposed to end by 11.30, but it never ended on time. At lunchtime the boys would take turns serving the asan first. “It was like a family, not a class,” says Janardhanan. And while the training was “very, very hard,” they never thought of anything except “to master the art of Kathakali and Bharatanayam.” Bharatanatyam classes were in the later part of the day, and late evenings Rukmini Devi would start choreographing her dance dramas. “It might go on till 10 p.m.”

The seamless learning, living and creating meant the artists got a profound understanding of each other. In choreographing new productions, Rukmini Devi stressed each had to know the other’s part. “Kunhiraman was one of our best artists, beginning with his role as Lord Shiva in ‘Kumarasambhavam’.” Here Rukmini Devi played Parvati and Chandu Panikkar took the roles of Brahma and of Shiva when he comes in the disguise of a Brahmin. The fact that he held his own alongside his two gurus points to Kunhiraman’s artistry, notes Janardhanan.

Kunhiraman also played Vishwamitra in “Sita Swayamvaram”, Guha in “Paduka Pattabhishekam”, and Vali in “Choodamani Pradanam,” besides his famous Ravana roles in the later sections of the Ramayana series. Janardhanan, who also played several stellar roles in these productions, says of the intimate group, “We knew each others’ characters, we didn’t need to practice, we would enjoy each others’ characters while performing.”

Though Kunhiraman’s Ravana, flitting between deep passion for Sita and overpowering rage, is remembered as an iconic role, Janardhana feels his Vishwamitra, performed as a young man, was a masterpiece too. “I don’t know which is the best, but I remember Vishwamitra. I keep him as an example in front of me,” he says.

“Many people criticised Vishwamitra being shown without a beard. People visualised him as an a old sage. But Athai (Rukmini Devi) said this is a dance drama, not a speech play and the beard might disturb. Your face becomes a whole theatre, and the beard doesn’t help you to bring out your emotions aptly. Even without it the beard he excelled. Even Sambasiva Iyer used to call him Vishwamitra, not Kunhiraman.”

Kunhiraman had great stage presence, he continues. “I still remember the nuances of abhinaya. There was no need for him to think. The satvika when he did Dasaratha, or Vishwamtira, or Ravana — his acting was superb.” Janardhanan says when he inherited these roles, he tried to emulate the standard, “but I was only repeating”.

The fight between Vali and Sugriva was composed on Janardhanan and Kunhiraman. “It was never cheap but he excelled in his portrayal of Vali, the unique way of fighting of the monkeys.”

Taught by both his gurus to shun any crudeness, Kunhiraman was “a man of principle,” who even in his long years teaching in the U.S., never diluted his style, “He would tell his students, preserve what I have given you, without diluting it that would be the greatest tribute to your teachers.”

Jovial and witty, “There cannot be another Kunhiraman,” says Janardhanan. “He will always remain with us. We will always remain brothers even though one of us is gone. Even now, all the pictures are flashing, flashing in my mind.”