Guru P.K. Narayanan Nambiar is a great exponent of of Kutiyattam and mizhavu, the more than 2000- year old Sanskrit theatre tradition of India, and its percussion respectively. He is the only mizhavu maestro in the country to be honoured with a Padma Shri. The eldest son of Kutiyattam thespian Padma Shri Mani Madhava Chakyar, Nambiar is also a towering name among the theatre percussionists of the country. Almost all the known Kutiyattam exponents of the country have performed to his inspiring finger strokes.

Though in the last century the art of Kutiyattam was sustained by a variety of styles such as Mani, Ammannur, Koyppa (also known as Paimkulam), Kidangoor and Pothiyil, the art of mizhavu dominated with the sole style that Narayanan Nambiar composed and propagated. He is the senior-most exponent of mizhavu -- all mizhavu artists of today are either his direct disciples or disciples of theirs.

He redefined the role and methodology of mizhavu from it being a mere accompaniment providing rhythm to the actors on stage, and initiated an unequivocal style of his own that was highly lyrical. He introduced Mizhavil Tayambaka, a captivating percussion ensemble of mizhavus. Additionally, he enriched the literature of Kutiyattam by authoring several books and articles including 30 plus seminar papers and has also traced out 25 unknown manuscripts in Sanskrit.

The maestro, who is also the supreme performer of Patakam, and a renowned Sanskrit scholar turns 84 -- which marks the completion of the cycle of 1000 full moons -- on May 28.

“My childhood and training were absolutely colourless like that of any young Nambiar or Chakyar boy of the period. Dreams were not our forte. We just obeyed the guru,” he says. His artistic life began in 1939 when he was 12. He accompanied his father for performances conducted at temples in places such as Kottiyoor and Madaikavu in North Malabar, and Avittathoor and Peruvanam in Central Kerala. “We moved on foot from place to place, carrying the luggage on our heads,” he recalls.

Kerala has a variety of rhythms and tayambaka on the chenda is a very popular. As mizhavu artists were mostly confined to a place behind the Kutiyattam actors, Narayanan Nambiar felt that a tayambaka on the mizhavu would help them showcase their talent better. After some basic lessons from his uncle Kochampilli Raman Nambiar, in composing for tayambaka on the mizhavu, he gave the first performance at the Kottakkal Kovilakam Siva temple in Malappuram District, in 1948.

Today mizhavu is also considered an independent percussion instrument that has earned more artistic freedom, financial support and reputation. “I’ve also composed Mizhavil Kuzhal Pattu, a musical ensemble with mizhavu, edakka, kurumkuzhal and cymbals, in the year 2000,” he informs.

As a Kutiyattam actor his debut was in 1954 at Lakkidi Kunjan Memorial Library. He played Arjuna (hero) in ‘Subradhananjayam.’ It was the first ever Kutiyattam by a non-Chakyar and outside the temple precincts. “I used to perform Kutiyattam until 1996, and handled both the roles of the hero and jester,” he says.

At the Kerala Kalamandalam

In 1966 he joined as part of the Kutiyattam faculty of the Kerala Kalamandalam, as the Guru of mizhavu. It was during this period that he groomed a good number of mizhavu performers such as Easwaran Unni, V.K.K. Hariharan and Edanadu Unnikrishnan Nambiar, leading exponents of today.

In 1980 he compiled ‘Sreekrishna Charitam Nangiarkoothu.’ Its publication played a significant role in the revival of Nangiarkoothu. His re-choreography of ‘Mantrankam,’ the third act of ‘Pratijna Yougandharayana’ of Bhasa and Mahendra Vikrama Pallava’s 7th century farce, ‘Mathavilasam’through Margi, Thiruvananthapuram came later while he was equally active with various other performances. During this period his works such as ‘Mizhavu-Nambiar’s Kramadeepika’ (2005), and dissertations came out.

He has also traced and translated ‘Talaprasthara’of Ramapanivada (who was none other than Kunchan Nambiar, 1705-1770), which explains thevariety of original rhythm structure of Kerala. It was published in four parts in the journal of the Kerala Sangeet Nataka Akademi in 1996.

“Traditionally the home of all practising Chakyars and Nambiars were Gurukulams. Training was given to offspring as a part of our daily life. Fast changing social scenario brought in several changes in our lives, as formal education earned more preference than the family profession. Today the challenge is to retain both the art form and the glorious tradition,” says Nambiar.

Mani Madhava Chakyar Smaraka Gurukulam was started in 1983 by his father. The Gurukulam, now supported by the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi, trains students in Kutiyattam, Nangiarkoothu, Chakyarkoothu and Mizhavu, and conducts performances throughout the country.

Family and tradition

His mother, Kochampilli Kunjimalu Nangiaramma, was a well known artist and his entire family comprises Kutiyattam artists – brothers, sisters, children, nieces, nephews and grand children, all of them are devoted to Kutiyattam. His wife, Santha Nangiaramma, was a performer in her younger days. While one daughter Vasanthi Narayanan is an exponent of both Kutiyattam and Nangiarkoothu and performs as a member of the gurukulam, the other, Dr. P.K. Jayanthi is a Sanskrit scholar with specialisation in Kutiyattam serving at the Sanskrit University. Sons Unnikrishnan Nambiar and Harish Nambiar are well-known mizhavu, koothu and patakam artists. In fact Harish is the only non-Chakyar to perform the intricate ‘Mantrankam.’ Grand children Sarath and Swathi are beginners, who ensure that the family tradition is sustained.

ART P.K. Narayanan Nambiar, the renowned Sanskrit scholar and performer of Kutiyattam, Patakam and mizhavu turns 84 tomorrow.

(The writer is the director of the Centre for Kutiyattam, Thiruvananthapuram, a part of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi.)