Kathakali actor Ranjini Suresh, who has been selected for the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi’s Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar, is a female artiste who specialises in Kathi (negative) vesham. Although Kathakali is predominantly a man’s world, Ranjini’s hard work and determination have won her a place on the Kathakali stage. The youngest daughter of Kalamandalam Karunakaran and Kavukutty, she says Kathakali is in her blood. While her father was an actor and teacher of the art form, her mother is a discerning critic and rasika. Excerpts from a conversation with Ranjini…

Surrounded by art

When I was born, my father was teaching at the fine arts wing of FACT in Udyogamandal. It was a golden period of the institute. Kalamandalam Hyder Ali, Sankaran Embranthiri and Kalamandalam Kesavan were some of the distinguished faculty members there. My father retired as Principal of the institution. Popularly known as Vaikkom Karunakaran, my father was in the first batch of students taught by Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair sir. He was completely moulded by the late maestro since he had not learnt Kathakali prior to his admission to Kalamandalam. My father would not deviate a step from what he had been taught by his Asan. My mother, an engineer in the Public Works Department, hails from Irinjalakuda and is passionate about Kathakali and Koodiyattam. She has a keen eye for the nuances of the play. Since I was born into such a family, I had a natural inclination for Kathakali and its rich play of drama, dance, music and rhythm.

First steps in Kathakali

My mother tells me that I skipped around and never walked as a child. I learnt on my own the ‘sari dance’ of Damayanthi and performed it for my family and my father’s disciples. Watching my efforts, my father’s disciple FACT Mohanan initiated me into the art form when I was about five. After he shifted to Chengannur, my father, a strict disciplinarian, began teaching me. He must have seen a spark of talent in me. He took me through the mudras and teaching exercises. My arangetram was at the age of seven and, sure enough, I played Damayanthi. I also learnt Bharatanatyam from Kalamandalam Chandrika and Mohiniyattam from Kalamandalam Sugandhi. But my heart was in Kathakali. In high school, I participated in the youth festival and won prizes for my act. In fact, in school, I was known as ‘Kathakali’, not Ranjini (laughs). Later, I began learning from FACT Padmanabhan. Kalamandalam Sreekumar polished my skills for the highly structured (chitta pradhanam) plays in Kathakali.

As an actor

My idol was Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair. His characters fascinated me. I have donned many of the Kathi roles such as Keechaka, Ravana and so on. I have also donned the Pacha of the heroes of Kathakali, the different roles of Hanuman and enacted female characters as well.

Ravanan and Ranjini

My favourite character is Ravanan, especially the one in ‘Ravanotbhavam’. This is a play that depicts how Ravana became a mighty warrior and king. I admire his will power, dedication and sense of purpose. I suppose these are qualities that all of us can imbibe. ‘Ravanotbhavam’ is beautifully structured and each mudra has its place in the tightly choreographed play. It is physically and emotionally exhausting to play this Ravana as one needs strength and concentration to enact the role. I have also essayed the Ravana in ‘Balivijayam’ and ‘Balivadham’, and Narakasuran in ‘Narakasuravadham’. But, now, I get a lot of invitations to play the Ravana of ‘Ravanotbavam’. Being my father’s daughter might have gained me an easy access to the stage. But, I feel it was my Ravana that won me the appreciation of discerning fans of Kathakali.

Straddling many worlds

I am a practising lawyer and for a while I was chairperson of Tripunithura Municipality. The chairmanship was quite unplanned. But I took it up as a challenge and during my stint, the municipality won two awards. At present, I am doing my doctorate in Kathakali from Kalamandalam. I have quite a few programmes coming up in the next few months. Thanks to my family, I am able to multi-task. My mother is my best critic. When my father was alive, she used to critique his performances as well. If there is a shortcoming in an act, she does not hesitate to share that with me. She is the most difficult person to please. ‘Today, you reminded me of Karunakaran Asan’ is her highest praise. Although both my elder brothers are also well-versed rasikas, they never learnt Kathakali formally. But they encourage me a great deal.

Winning the award…

It is an honour and an incentive to excel as an artiste. I never expected to get it because all my learning was from distinguished teachers and not from an institute as such. I did send the application but never imagined I would be selected for the award.

Looking ahead

As of now I have not been teaching anyone. But I would like to begin a school or an institute for performing arts in my father’s name. That is my dream.