His face painted fiercely green, a heavy kiritam (crown) sitting firmly on his head and his bright costume in place, Muriyad Muraleedharan is ready to tell the story of Bheeshma and Hanuman in ‘Kalyana Sougandhikam'. What is fascinating, though, is the form he adopts to narrate his story… Ottanthullal.

In Chennai for a performance at ABHAI’s anniversary celebrations, Muraleedharan keeps his audience (which patiently waits till 9 p.m. for his scheduled 7 p.m. show!) riveted even though not many can comprehended much of what’s being described, as the whole show is in Malayalam! But that’s the power of his performance.

When you meet him the following day at a non-descript hotel in Mylapore, the transformation is amazing. Behind the fierce mask is a simple, humble man who can speak only a smattering of English, but can nonetheless effectively communicate his passion for the art he practises. Wife Geetha, herself an Ottanthullal artist and a teacher, acts as the translator and recounts his fascinating artistic journey.

Unlike many performers, Muraleedharan did not have an artistic family background to boast of. He happened to watch a school performance when he was four which left a deep impact. “That’s how and when I decided to learn Ottanthullal. I got a lot of encouragement from my father. My first teacher was V. N. Nair in Thrissur. Later, I landed in Kalamandalam where I spent 10 years perfecting my art.” He trained under doyenne Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Ammal and Kalamandalam Mohana Thulasi, among others.

The origins

One can’t help notice many similarities between Ottanthullal and Kathakali. So what makes this art different? Muraleedharan elaborates, “This semi-classical dance combined with recitation (also referred to as Ottamthullal) traces its roots to the 15th century and is credited to legendary Malayalam poet Kalakkaththu Kunchan Nambiar. Like in Kathakali, the themes are invariably born from mythology and the Epics. Sometimes, the topics also touch upon prevailing social evils and socio-political issues and events. That’s what the colour green, painted on the artist’s face, signifies.”

He continues, “However, unlike in Kathakali, here the dancer has to sing and the language of expression is colloquial Malayalam. The lyric are set to rhythms that could be simple or complicated, depending on the storyline. The most distinguishing feature however, is the humour and satirical twist that Ottanthullal is famous for. Each presentation can run into three to four hours and it’s a one-man show all the way.”

Muraleedharan has over 2,000 shows to his credit at various temple platforms in Kerala and outside the State, including at the Bhagavata Mela in Melattur. Besides, he has been promoting the art as a staff artist for AIR for nearly 30 years.

His first show in Chennai was way back in 1991. And that was thanks to his Bharatanatyam teacher Padma akka (Padma Subrahmanyam to all of us).That’s when he reveals that he learnt from her for more than five years, and is primarily a Bharatanatyam teacher. “I owe a lot of my success to her. I attended three Shilpakala camps which she conducted and that how I got to become her pupil. I later participated in her ‘Natyasastra’ series telecast on DD in the early 1990s. Every time I have performed in Chennai, it has been at her behest.” The Dhananjayans too have been a great source of inspiration.

Muraleedharan is one among the very few practitioners of this unusual dance form. Why are there so few takers? “There are eager students. But most are not too serious about taking it up as a profession. Also, it’s an expensive art. The costumes alone could cost anywhere between Rs. 75,000 and Rs. 80,000. This is where some Government support, perhaps in the form of grants, will come in handy,” rues Muraleedharan.

Despite the hurdles, Muraleedharan is today content teaching Bharatanatyam and Ottanthullal at his school Kairali Natyakalakshetra in Irinjalakuda, Kerala. He signs off philosophically, “What matters most to me is my art. It’s my provider, my very reason to exist.”

The story goes…

How did Ottanthullal come to be? Well, the story goes that Kunchan Nambiar while playing the mizhavu (a copper drum) for a Chakyar Koothu show, dozed off during the performance. The Chakyar is believed to have mocked him. Insulted, Nambiar swore that he would create a new art form which would compete with Chakyar koothu. That’s how Ottanthullal was born… to throw light on the prevalent socio-political issues and prejudices at that time.

Today, Nambiar’s home, Kalakkathu Bhavanam, in Killikkurussimangalam in Palakkad district, serves as a memorial and museum of this art form. What’s more, the Kunchan Memorial Library has rare archival material, including manuscripts and documents related to various performing arts of Kerala.