The audience was swept into the emotive current generated by the powerhouse duo.

Madaveedhi, at the heart of Mylapore, and its environs echoed with the resounding clang of cymbals (Ela thalam) and the compelling tattoo of maddalam, chenda and chengila as the ‘Keli’ announced the start of the Kathakali performance at the Bharatiya Vidya Bhavan under the auspices of Uthareeyam. Unable to resist the imperative summons, a knot of curious onlookers gathered, applauded and trooped into the auditorium in the wake of the ensemble. Kathakali in Chennai? We’re game, was the sentiment colouring the air for first-timers. They came. And sat through the entire performance, transfixed.

After all, weren’t they in the presence of masters of the art? With Kalanilayam Balakrishnan (Balasan) as Lord Krishna and Pariyanampatta Divakaran as Kuchela working their magic, the much-loved story of evergreen friendship and boundless affection came alive in ‘Kuchelavritam’ as you reminisced, chuckled and ruminated with the protagonists, swept into the emotive current generated by the powerhouse duo.

It was a riveting enactment right from the Vandana slokam that preceded the entry of Kuchela in the first scene. Stooped, emaciated by poverty, his bond with his childhood companion is the strength that sustains him on his journey. Yearning to see him, yet unsure of his reception, Kuchela reassures himself that Krishna will remember him and extend a warm welcome as he venerates Brahmins.

In the second scene, Lord Krishna is seated with consort Rukmini in his palace at Dwaraka. Resplendent in a gorgeous yellow costume (njori) a jewel-encrusted rich blue velvet tunic and glittering crown with peacock feathers (Krishna Mudi) you marvel at this vesham, a triumph of aharya. Glimpsing Kuchela from afar, Krishna rushes down from the seventh storey to joyously embrace his friend and leads him up to his abode. Ensuring that he is comfortably seated in Rukmini’s place, Krishna performs paada puja, and draws his friend close.

A mellow padam in Sankarabharanam leads you through their conversation as the friends’ overwhelming delight finds expression at meeting after so many years. As their reminiscences progress, you witness their transformation into children who relive their gurukulavasa in the ashram of Sandeepa Maharishi. Hands flapping artlessly, relaxed stance, guileless expressions of delight and glee – Balasan radiated a sparkling energy field that fairly hummed with joyousness.

The padams of Muringoor Sankaran Pothi wove together rhythm and melody in ragas Bhimplas, Hindolam, Atana and Mohanam, linking childhood memories that described the two young sishyas venturing into the forest to collect firewood at the gurupatni’s request, the onset of dusk with torrential rain and their taking shelter in a bower. Kuchela’s recollection of night sounds in the forest and clutching Krishna for courage on hearing a lion’s roar bore testimony to Divakara Asan’s artistry. Again, his palpable hesitation in handing over what he considers too paltry a gift for Krishna – the small ragged bundle of rice flakes sent by his wife, encapsulates a touching moment.

Demanding the bundle hidden beneath Kuchela’s arm, Krishna eats a handful with gusto, pronounces it to be delicious and reaches for another pidi, only to be stopped by an alarmed Rukmini, who reminds him that while the first mouthful eaten by the Lord has conferred great wealth and prosperity on Kuchela, the second would result in enslavement of Krishna and Rukmini to Kuchela and his wife. Krishna smiles and heeds Rukmini’s plea. After Kuchela leaves, asking for nothing, only giving, Krishna blesses the Brahmin with bountiful riches. Sadanam Sadanandan as Rukmini was charm personified, mudras, movements and gait highlighting the subtleties of minukku with unhurried grace.

Such consummate artistry, so many moments to savour! When Krishna exclaims that it is bhakti which lends a special flavour to the humble offering, you are so deeply immersed in mime and moment that empathy has you wiping tear-wet eyes. Loath to part, Kuchela takes leave, only to rush back and embrace Krishna time and again until he finally tears himself away. And what does the Lord of Dwaraka do, for his part? He hides Kuchela’s umbrella and cane to delay his departure!

Vocalists Kalamandalam Vinod and Nedumpally Rammohan did themselves proud, with poignant phrases in Bhimplas and Hindolam drawing appreciation. Bhava underlined every phrase, spilling over in slokas and padas, the clear enunciation of sahitya in Manipravalam accentuating the myriad rasas illuminating each artist’s demeanour. Sadanam Devadas (maddalam) and Sadanam Jithin (chenda) along with the vocalists who handled chengila and ela talam skilfully steered the percussion that formed the heartbeat of the narration.

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Guru par excellence

The quiet, unassuming demeanour of Kalanilayam Balakrishnan, affectionately known as Balasan to disciples, friends and admirers across the globe, belies his significant achievements and contribution to Kathakali.

Principal of Sadanam Kathakali Academy since 1982, this senior artist who earlier served on the faculty of the Delhi International Cultural Centre and Sreekrishnapuram Kalakendram is a guru par excellence, who has groomed some of the most successful present day Kathakali exponents such as Sadanam Bhasi, Manikandan (Sr and Jr), Krishnadas, Vijayan Warrier, Sadanandan, Srinathan, Mohanan (Sr and Jr), C.V. Santhosh Kumar. His sons Arun Babu and Vishnu Prasad have also received formal training and continue to touch base with the art despite being professionals in other fields.

In 1965, at age 13, Balasan began his training at Unnayi Warrier Smaraka Kalanilayam at Irinjalakkuda and went on to learn from luminaries such as Pallippuram Gopalan Nair, Kalamandalam Kuttan, Kalanilayam Raghavan, Kottakkal Sivaraman, Sadanam Krishnankutty and the legendary Kizhppadam Kumaran Nair Asan. His forte lies in Pacha, Kathi and Vella Thadi veshams. His brother Kalamandalam Balasubramaniam is also a noted artist.

“Our training was rigorous. We would be up at 3 a.m. to undergo the traditional body oiling and massage (uzhichal). Possibly the toughest form of physiotherapy, the process initially left us with aches and pains for weeks until our bodies got accustomed to the regime. It strengthened muscle, sinew and bone so thoroughly that we continue to perform energetically to this day,” observes Balasan.

What changes in milieu and approach have become evident over the years? “Back then, Kathakali was the main form of entertainment in Kerala,” remarks the seasoned artist. “Performances were held almost daily. But today, they are few and far between. With very low monetary returns even for senior artists, students find it difficult to pursue the art as a full time profession. Art for art’s sake was possible as a way of life in my gurus’ generation and in mine. Not anymore. Active encouragement by government organisations and art institutions is the need of the hour. The very survival of the art form hangs in the balance.”

Recipient of the first Pattikkamthodi Smaraka Puraskkaram award, Balasan continues to teach students with the same passion and dedication that distinguishes his art.

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Quest for excellence

Born in 1954 in Peringannur, Palakkad District, Pariyanampatta Divakaran began learning Kathakali at age 12 at the Peroor Gandhi Seva Sadanam, receiving intensive training for eight years. “My father, Pariyanampatta Kunchunni Namboothiripad was multifaceted – a famous artist, magician, drama and film actor. He was a celebrated exponent of ‘Ekantha Natakam.’ My interest in Kathakali grew as I watched the performances of my elder brother, Pariyanampatta Narayanan, an expert artist. He was blind in one eye and also deaf, a fact that made his expertise all the more amazing. Sadly, he died young,” says the artist.

After the Sadanam training, the artist's quest for excellence continued at the Kerala Kalamandalam for three years. His gurus include Kizhpadam Kumaran Nair, Kalamandalam K.G. Vasudevan, V.P. Ramakrishnan Nair, Sadanam Balakrishnan, Sadanam Krishnankutty, Sadanam Ramankutty, Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair, Kalamandalam Gopi and Vazhenkada Vijayan. Specialising in 'Chuvanna Thadi' roles, he was hailed as a rising young star and won widespread acclaim for his portrayals of Dushasana, Jarasandha, Kalakeya, Trigartha and Bakasura. Also donning minukku veshams, he has been featured in international art festivals in Italy, Poland, London and France.

“Bringing a character to life is a complex creative process. The strong foundation laid by my gurus and the systematic training regime have enabled me to live up to the demands of this art form,” signs off the veteran artist.