Thottam Shankaran Namboothiripad on a life dedicated to his art.

Thottam Shankaran, grandson of the legendary Guru Shankaran Namboothiripad — who inspired and taught Uday Shankar — gave his first performance in the Capital after having moved here from Kerala a full two years ago. After looking in vain for connoisseurs who would appreciate his dance form, evolved by Namboothiripad from Kathakali and named Abhinava Natyam, Shankaran says he was finally able to contact dance scholar Kapila Vatsyayan, who knew his grandfather and was instrumental in arranging his performance at the India International Centre the other day.Shankaranseems at once ecstatic about the legacy he has inherited and bitter about the slights he has faced from a relentlessly changing world which has little time for his delicate and nuanced art. Add to that the almost universal shift from individual guru-disciple transmission to institutional training methods, and increasing commercialisation that leaves organisers scant patience for old-world values, and Shankaran is a disillusioned man. Here, the 60-year-old artiste reveals some of his thoughts, and his angst, with the help of translation by his son, Shankaran T.S. Excerpts from the conversation:

What was your training like?

I started training in Kathakali at age five. My father Parameswaran Namboothiri trained me in Kathakali, although my early training and blessing was given by my grandfather. I also simultaneously trained in Abhinava Natyam. After my sacred thread ceremony at age seven, I began to study the Yajur Veda, puja mantras and Sanskrit. I also learnt yoga. The training was very tough. I would get up at four o'clock. After bath and sandhya vandanam (dawn puja ritual) and recitation of Gayatri mantra, I had to do suryanamaskar 108 times. If we did not follow this routine, we would be punished by Guruji (his grandfather). I had my arangetram at the age of 12. I performed the role of Bhima in “Kalyana Sougandhikam” at Thiruvalla Sreevallabha temple. I have made a detailed study of Ekalochana abhinaya (in which one eye portrays tearful sorrow and the other eye portrays anger) and the 10 expressions (pride, romance, jealousy, shyness, satire, fear, anger, sorrow, wonder and sympathy) as pioneered by Guruji.

How did Abhinava Natyam evolve from Kathakali?

Kathakali is often accused of being very complicated with hand gestures and a language that not all can understand. Abhinava Natyam on the other hand is an art that can be understood by everyone, connoisseurs and lay people alike. There is no heavy costume and facial colour code of Kathakali. My grandfather transformed it from a nritya-centric to a natya-centric form — with a lot of expression. But expression does not mean sitting in one place and performing facial expression. It is the entire body that moves and acts. My contribution has been in the realm of aharya (costume), according to the character portrayed. Guruji used to wear simple a cloth on the head. I wear a crown. I have composed new pieces and try to continuously bring something new to the art.

Are you teaching anyone now?

No. First I want to propagate this form and make sure that Abhinava Natyam is recognised universally as a great art form. Only then will I teach it to others. I am willing to teach any student from anywhere in the world, but I will not teach Keralites, with the exception of my son. I do not need to depend on teaching for my living. I have many skills, including like astrology.

Why are you against teaching Keralites, when Abhinava Natyam is rooted in Kerala arts like Kathakali?

There is no appreciation for art in Kerala, whether for Kathakali or for classical music or for Abhinava Natyam. After independence, the politicians set about to destroy the art of my grandfather. After my grandfather's death, I was the only one performing Abhinava Natyam, but I did not receive any encouragement. Institutions teaching Kathakali, etc. only follow a syllabus. This is a superficial approach. These arts can only be taught through the guru-shishya parampara. The artistes don't have knowledge or scholarship. It is not a question of caste, but of a correct approach to the divine art.

What do you require in a good disciple?

A worthy disciple should have studied at least up to class X. Knowledge is a must. The student should be able to dedicate his/her whole life to this art and possess an intention to take the art into the next generation, to a greater level than the guru. Pujas and rituals were necessary and a part of our Namboodiri tradition. However, for someone from another community, this is not a must.

(The artiste can be reached at 9958584560 and 9958585564)


History liveJuly 29, 2010