With the demise of Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair, Kathakali has lost the last crucial link to the Pattikkamthoti school.
While by the beginning of the 20th century, the decline of the feudal society reflected badly in the patronisation of art forms such as Kathakali, by the end of the 19 century, the art had attained a high level of stylisation, with four to five different schools that nourished the art. The Kalluvazhi style originated from the Kalluvazhi village of Palakkad as a refinement of the first and foremost Kalladikkotan style of the art through the contributions of Kuyilthodi Ittiraricha Menon (1828-1903). His gurus had been hailed for its adherence to technical and physically neat but demanding movements.
The major difference between the Kallatikkotan style and the offshoot, the Kalluvazhi style, is that in the latter, the movements are highly refined and limited to a smaller space, with the physical movements (angika) and the emotional qualities (satvika) highly balanced. Ittiraricha Menon’s disciple Pattikkamtodi Ravunni Menon further improved it and thus emerged the Pattikkamthoti style, the base practice followed at the Kerala Kalamandalam and most other training institutions for over half a century.
With the passing away of Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair, on March 11 at the age of 87 in his home in Njalamkurissi of Vellinezhi (in Palakkad district of Kerala), the Pattikkamthoti school has lost its last crucial link. The other acclaimed disciples of Pattikkamthoti stick to Kathakali were Thekkinkattil Ravunni Nair, Vazhengada Kunju Nair, Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, Keezhpadam Kumaran Nair and Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair (Pattikkamthoti’s son), among others.
The Kutty trio
The further improvisation to this legacy that Padmanabhan Nair and Ramankutty Nair brought into Kerala Kalamandalam with the support from chenda exponent Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Poduval and maddalam maestro Kalamandalam Appukutty Poduval, was widely recognised as the Kalamandalam style. Kalamandalam Gopi is one of its most famous practitioners. What added grace to the histrionics of Ramankutty Nair, otherwise an unassuming solid man of just average height and features? Undoubtedly, it was his effortless movements achieved through 10 years of rigorous training under Pattikkamthoti. His relatively small hands and short legs dovetailed with perfection poetically circular and semi-circular movements, along with his understanding of the role, characterisation and the emotion (stayi) of the play. The poise and precision that he unveiled through stylised physical movements brought in poetry in motion amid the voluminous paraphernalia of the art.
His above-mentioned physique and “my inborn stammering once landed me in trouble; during the late 1940s, I was arrested in Shoranur by the police who mistook me for Communist leader E.M.S. Namboodiripad!” Later, he was quite proud of this ‘comedy of errors’; he was a sympathiser to the Communist movement in Kerala throughout his life.
The golden era of Ramankutty Nair’s career lasted four decades, starting from the 1950s. By 1960, he had teamed with the other two Kuttys, Krishnankutty Poduval for chenda and Appukutty Poduval for maddalam, to give life to the rajasic characters such as Ravana of ‘Thoranayudham’ and ‘Ravanotbhavam’, Duryodhana of ‘Duryodhanavadham’ and ‘Utharaswayamvaram’, Narakasura of ‘Narakasuravadham’ and Sisupala of ‘Rajasooyam’, besides roles such as Hanuman of ‘Thoranayudham,’ ‘Kalyana Soughandhigam’ and ‘Lavanasuravadham.’ Thus, the team was hailed as the Kutty trio of Kathakali, till the demise of Krishnankutty Poduval in 1992.
Interestingly, for Ramankutty Nair’s performance, often Krishnankutty Poduval used to perform by closing his eyes. When I asked Poduval about this way back in the 1980s, he replied, “Before Ramankutty Nair thinks something in his mind, my finger tips read it; that is our understanding on stage even when we were not on talking terms for some time. Kathakali is an art with specific rules and grammar and set choreographies, and he always plays within it as a person wedded strongly to tradition.”
Added to this grace was the glamour that the music of late Neelakandan Nambeeshan and Unnikrishna Kurup lavished on stage. That period was certainly the golden age of the technically perfect Kathakali.
While considering the aharaya (costume) affect of roles attributed by Pacha make-up, they were definitely not Ramankutty’s best portrayals. Nevertheless, the Kathakali aficionados thronged to watch his Dharmaputhra of ‘Kirmeeravadham’ and Arjuna of ‘Kalakeyavadham’ for the technical perfection with which he established those characters. Equally praised were his performances as Hanuman in ‘Thoranayudham’ with Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair as Ravana; ‘Kalyana Soughandhigam’ with Kalamandalam Gopi as Bheema; and Keechaka in ‘Keechakavadham’ with Kottakkal Sivaraman as Sairandhri.
Ramankutty Nair was mostly associated with characters that are arrogant and evil with high degrees of valour, classified in Kathi category. Comparing the spirit of his roles with his general mannerism and body language were quite interesting. During his almost four decades of association with the Kerala Kalamandalam as a faculty member, his mere presence brought in absolute discipline at the institution. “Spare the rod and spoil the student” was his basic principle in teaching Kathakali. He longed for perfection in both classroom and on stage.
Relying on Raja Ravi Varma’s paintings, Ramankutty reformed the costume of Parasurama for ‘Seethaswayamvaram’, which resulted in a few controversies. However, mainly due to the mettle of his performance, it clicked. When Vallathol endorsed it, Ramankutty refrained from looking back. Shortly he was fated to perform in this role many more times and at some point, it became his masterpiece. The moment he stopped performing this role, more or less, the play faded into oblivion from the Kathakali stage for several years.
Ramankutty’s journey as a Kathakali artist began in 1938, at the age of 12, under Pattikkamthoti. In 1985, at the age of 60, he retired from the Kerala Kalamandalam as principal. He was the sole Kathakali artist to be honoured with Padma Bhushan. Other honours that came his way include the Padmasri, the Kerala State Government’s first award for Kathakali, Award and Fellowship of the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Kalidas Samman, among others.
On hearing about Ramankutty’s demise, my friend and U.S.-based Kathakali lover Graeme Vanderstoel, wrote, “One is almost tempted to say end of an era. Maybe Madhavoor asan (southern style) is the only actor remaining from that decade. Ramankutty Nair asan was in the first performance I saw, Bombay, 1959. I was so glad to spend sometime with him a year ago. Such memories of the actor, dancer and man...”
The master will live on as one of the most prominent, dynamic and essential chapters in the history of Kathakali of the 20 century.
(The writer is Director, Centre for Kudiyattom, Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi)