Mary John is a globe-trotting performer and guru. But what endears makes her so endearing to the international community is the art that she alone teaches them – ‘chutti,' the esoteric art of make-up in Kathakali. Performance of Kathakali was has not been strictly a male bastion when Mary had entered this unique dance-theatre two decades ago. But When she started learning chutti from Kalamandalam Ram Mohan, many eyebrows were raised as she became the first Indian lady to venture into this department of Kathakali. A choreographer of repute, recently she was recently invited to Jharkhand to present a novel production in which 14 fourteen Kathakali stree veshams and six Mohiniyattaom dancers took part at the inaugural function of the National Games. Back home at Cheruthuruthy after the national event, she spoke about her passion for performing artsthat could be satisfied only after her marriage to the Kathakali maestro Kalamandalam John. Excerpts:
I grew in Piravam in an orthodox Christian family. Classical dance or any performing art for that matter was anathema for us. There was only one Hindu family in that locality and dance classes were held regularly. My brother and I used to watch the classes without our parents' knowledge. At home we used to try some of the feats. But any such attempt attracted severe punishments. In 1982, soon after my SSLC examinations, our family shifted to Vaniyamkulam, Palakkad district. This was a turning point in my life.
Marriage and after
It was an arranged marriage. That the groom was a Kathakali performer did not matter at all. But to my surprise I found in my husband, Kalamandalam John, a patron who wanted to promote my terpsichorean talents. My joy knew no bounds when he sent me to dance classes. But that did not last long as my parents intervened again. Then we changed strategy: Why not learn chutti as it required no demonstration on the stage? Moreover, I would be of immense help to my husband who had already started foreign tours with his troupe. It was a ploy to hoodwink my parents because along with chutti lessons, I was also taking lessons in dance secretly.
Into the world of aaharya
Learning an art (chutti) that was totally strange to me was made possible only because of Ram Mohan asan aashaan who moulded the artistic talent in me. Preparation of the colours with traditional ingredients and their application on the face of Kathakali performers has to be done with utmost care. He taught me every nuance of the art. With his blessings, my debut took place after completing the course. The experience is still memorable as I did the make-up on my husband's face for the arangettam! The feedback from the Kathakali fraternity were really inspiring. Soon I got opportunities to do the chutti for veterans, including Sadanam Krishnankutty, Kottakkal Krishnankutty Nair, Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair, Kottakkal Sivaraman and Kalamandalam Rajasekharan. The cooperation from these exponents and their respect for the first female ‘chuttikkari' made me an accomplished one. There have been occasions when I could accomplish as many as five different veshams for a whole play. Ram Mohan asan aashaan trained me in all the departments so that I could be in total control of the ‘aniyara' (green room) as well. Stitching of the costumes, decoration of the headgear, holding the ‘thirasseela' and all such concomitant jobs could be completed single-handedly by me. I must add that we have a full set of costumes that was given to us as a gift from Mohanlal after the shoot of ‘Vanaprastham.'
Learning dance learning
In dance, I was fortunate to be trained by Kalamandalam Lathika, Kalamandalam Leelamma and Kalamandalam Hymavathy. I had the privilege of getting trained under Dr. Vasundhara Doraiswamy (Bharatanatyam) and Vyjayanthi Kashi (Kuchipudi) as well. But my entry into the dance world was only after my first child was born. I remember how I used to practise ‘tharangam,' involving the dance on a plate in Kuchipudi, with my baby in my hands! Of course training in Kathakali began immediately after my marriage, as John was the guru. Nowadays, we are a team that can present an assorted performance of Mohiniyattam, Kuchipudi and Kathakali (‘Kalakeyavadham') that can last for three-and-a-half hours. This has become popular abroad.
Perhaps I have more disciples abroad than at home. I hold regular classes in Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Spain, England and Greece. A good number of the foreign students have become professional dance teachers. Among my students are also my daughters Riya and Ruby. Riya is trained in all the dance forms including Ottanthullal. So is her sister. Both of them help us in Kalatharangini, the institute John had started before our marriage. I get a lot of students of fashion designing from different universities as well. The make-up and costumes of Kathakali and Mohiniyattam form part of their syllabus.