Kathakali actor Parassini Kunhiraman Nair, who turns 80 today, recalls a life of hardship and happy moments.

Parassini Kunhiraman Nair now leads a quite retired life in his village in Kannur, Kerala. As the acclaimed Kathakali actor of yesteryear turns 80 today (May 3), one recalls the thespian for his magical portrayal of Hanuman and Parasurama and hero roles in Kathi costume.

Parassinikkadavu, popularly known as Parassini, is a idyllic village of northern Kerala, with a river flowing on one side and surrounded by hillocks on the other. What adds to this scenic hamlet is a temple located dedicated to Lord Muthappan, the Dravidian god.

Hardly a kilometre from the quaint temple lives Kunhiraman Nair, who is synonymous with both Kathakali and Parassinikkadavu. Contemporary art connoisseurs and historians cannot imagine Kathakali of north Malabar without Kunhiraman Nair and his celebrated portrayals.

The path that Nair chose was filled with difficulties. Interestingly, his fans are not aware of those hardships, which reveal the crude method of Kathakali training those days and the torture imposed upon poor boys, all for the sake of art. Nair too had to tread that path. But, today, as he looks back, Nair feels such primitive methods played a vital role in his developing a stoic attitude towards anything and anyone.

“When I was hardly 60 days old, I lost my father whose name was given to me. He was a school teacher. Subsequently, my mother, Kalyani, got remarried and I had to accompany her to my step-father’s house,” reminisces the master. His step-father was running a tea-shop near the temple as directed by the then head of the Parassini Madappura family. Known as Madayan, the family owned the temple and a Kathakali troupe.

“When I was in Std 4, I was unable to continue my studies as We did not have enough money to buy books. Around that time, the Kathakali troupe needed a few boys to be trained in Kathakali acting and I was sent there. I was least interested as was my family, considering the painful training that stretched into several years. But the order from the Madayan was to either admit me into Kathakali or abandon the tea-shop and leave the place. Helpless, the elders decided to sacrifice me to Kathakali so the family could survive.”

That’s how Nair became a trainee under Kadathanattu Kochugovindan Nair, the renowned Kathakali asan of the period and the then chieftain of the Parassini troupe. “My training began during the monsoon of 1944 or 1945. I was the only student of my batch; others were seniors. Classes started around 3.30 a.m. and while it was heavily raining outside, I would be forced to do tough exercises to make my well-oiled body sweat as if it were summer. Kochugovindan Asan had a terrible temper and was often rude towards his pupils. Even a silly mistake would earn his wrath and he would beat me with the thick wooden rod used to keep rhythm,” Nair goes down memory lane and adds after a pause, “Unable to bear the pain, I fled four times but each time, I would be caught and brought back.”

“I still remember… we had to jump several times, each round consisting of a minimum 50 jumps. Then, we were made to bend backward with our hands and ankles tied together for long hours… this was meant to make the body flexible. It was also a punishment.”

After six months of training, Nair gave his debut performance as Krishna in ‘Narakasuravadham.’ “That was part Kathakali training those days - learn while performing and perform minor roles while learning major roles.”

Does he remember his thoughts while performing? “While on stage, I was glad I could do justice to the play and the audience appreciated it. But frankly, I think there was no need for such extreme punishments.”

His training under Kochugovindan Nair asan lasted for about seven years and by the time, Nair became an expert in minor and secondary roles, mostly Krishna of ‘Kuchelavritham,’ ‘Narakasuravadham,’ ‘Subhadraharanam,’ ‘Duryodhanavadham’ and Utharan of ‘Utharaswayamvaram.’

“By that time, to my great relief, Kadathanattu Sankaran Nair, known for his role of Hanuman, joined us. He was a sophisticated trainer and more important, kind towards students.” It was from him that Kunhiraman Nair mastered the subtleties of roles such as the three different Hanumans of Kathakali. “I performed as Kusa in ‘Lavanasuravadham’ with him as Hanuman in about 70 different venues.”

Shortly after Kochugovindan Nair left, Kadathanattu Ravunni Nair, acclaimed for his portrayal of Keechaka, too joined the troupe. Unlike other contemporaries of his period, Kunhiraman Nair played Keechaka a little differently. When Keechaka learns that Sairandhri (Draupadi in disguise) has five husbands, he reacts, “Five husbands? Really? Then that’s enough, you may go.” And then returns requests her to “accommodate one more to make it six. It appears quite fair” with a lecherous look and smile, the classy stamp of Kunhiraman Nair.

“I learned this by watching Ravunni Nair asan on stage. He never told us how to do something… he only gave his opinion and made some suggestions during our training. Similarly, I learnt some interesting gradations from Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, Vellinezhi Nanu Nair and Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair during my performances with them.”

None trained him in the role of Parasurama. Perfection was achieved by donning the role of Rama in ‘Seetha Swayamvaram’ with masters during his formative years. While depicting the act of killing the kshatriya (“Kshatriya vamsa …..”), Nair detailed the drive of the angry sage, in his unique style that left connoisseurs and common man glued to their seats. It showcased the demanding physique of the Kalladikkodan School, the foremost style of the art, and the nuances of the Kadathanattu tradition. Nair imbibed the ideal elements from the masters of his time and presented it in his own inimitable style. So much so, none of his roles were copies of any of his gurus or seniors.

Endurance on stage was not an issue for Nair, having trained under three gurus with distinct styles -- Kochugovindan Nair, Sankaran Nair and Ravunni Nair. Several cultural organisations and temples honoured Kunhiraman Nair over the years. But his uncompromising attitude and earthy disposition may have been reasons why he has not been honoured by the State.

But that does not bother this veteran. What does he wish for, you ask. “If health permits, I want to return to the stage,” smiles the octogenarian master.

(The writer is Director, Centre for Kutiyattam, Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi)