Veterans K.P. Kunhiraman and Katherine are being feted with for their immense contribution to classical dance in the U.S.

This 83-year-old resident of an assisted living home located amidst farmlands near Kanchipuram, is special. For the man in question is the veteran dancer K.P. Kunhiraman. He and wife Katherine are among the earliest gurus, who have a significant role in disseminating South Indian arts traditions, especially Kathakali and Bharatanatyam, in the U.S.

Today, keeping that passion alive for decades has paid off again. The dancer couple has been selected to receive the Lifetime Achievement Award of the World Arts West, producers of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, now in its 36th year, which will be conferred on them on June 14 in San Francisco. As the octogenarian is unwell, the award will be received by one of his senior students, Barbara Framm.

Kunhiraman, who hails from Cheruvathoor in the Kasaragod district of Kerala, has been living in the U.S. for nearly four decades teaching and performing Bharatanatyam and Kathakali along with Katherine. Due to advancing age and related reasons, he returned to Chennai this past year.

It was from Guru Ambu Panikkar, who returned home from Kalakshetra due to health reasons, that Rukmini Devi Arundale learnt about his son Kunhiraman. When Panikkar passed away, she wrote to Kunhiraman’s mother to send the lad to Kalakshetra to continue the artistic tradition. Thus, the 16-year-old boy landed in Kalakshetra and trained in Kathakali under Guru Chandu Panikkar, and Bharatanatyam under Sarada Hoffman and others. Kunhiraman stayed in Kalakshetra for 28 years, as a student and then nearly 20 more years as an artist, playing leading roles in dance dramas and Kathakali shows.

When Katherine Siebel from Pennsylvania joined Kalakshetra to learn Bharatanatyam in 1966, Kunhiraman was assigned to teach her. “I was the only Kathakali student at that time!” says Katherine. “I was there for about two and a half years, studying Bharatanatyam as a major subject, and Kathakali as minor. Later I was with the Dhananjayans for six years.”

Katherine studied theatre in school. “I had only seen two dance performances before we moved to India, and they were both African!” Her parents were artists.

“I was detail-oriented in my art, and leaned toward traditional rather than modern art. My stepfather, an urban planner and architect, got a job with Ford Foundation in Kolkata. It was supposed to be for a year, so he brought us to get an experience of India. It ended up being 12 years but in the first few weeks, I watched a Bharatanatyam performance for the first time and fell in love with it. I watched Ritha (Tagore) Devi, who presented an evening of five classical styles. The precision in movement and the amount of theatre grabbed my attention. Then I saw Kamala Laxman, with Radha and Vasanti. They danced together, solo, jumped down and sang, did nattuvangam… This was it for me. I fell in love with the art form at once.”

Was it love at first sight with Kunhiraman as well? “Well, it grew over weeks and months. Not the same as my love for dance. We knew each other for four years before we got married.”

After five years of running a household in Chennai, the couple decided to move to Berkeley, along with four-year-old Nandini. This was a time when dance of all genres enjoyed a flash of popularity both in India and the U.S. Says Katherine, “The sad truth is that most Americans do not know where India is or anything about it. The new path was never smooth. I was there setting things up and had been teaching for a few months, when when Kunhiraman arrived in August 1975. Soon we began performing.”

Shortly after, they opened their dance school, Kalanjali. “It was hard to get enough students to make our ends meet. As the Indian community grew so did our classes, kicked off in 1980 with a grant from the California Arts Council to give lecture-demonstrations in 40 elementary schools. The next grant was for teaching free classes, and we beefed up enrolment greatly whenever we had this grant, off and on for a total of ten years. No student ever dropped out when it was no longer free.” Over the years, the duo has conducted a large number of performances and trained hundreds of students.

Looking back, Katherine feels, “When we left India, we both felt we should be messengers of the arts, more than creators of more compromised forms that might ‘sell’ better in the West. We have created as well, but for the most part, we have remained a source. Our repertoire grew as we worked here. Kunhiraman maintained his Kerala roots and his Kalakshetra persona through it all. We feel sad that we could not take Kathakali further than we did; also not reasonable to expect more than that. To do this, Kunhiraman left a position of great respect and achievement, and I walked away from the New York design and arts world where all doors were open to me. We could have shown our light a little more brightly if we had had more initial support but we never waived from the path and have no regrets.”

The full circle

In 1978, the elaborately costumed husband and wife team of K.P. and Katherine Kunhiraman stepped on to the stage at the first San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival and gave the U.S. audiences a taste of the classical Indian dance form called Kathakali. This year, the month-long festival comes full circle when it presents the Kunhiramans with the annual Malonga Casquelourd Lifetime Achievement Award on June 14. and K.P. takes the stage in what will be his final U.S. appearance.Sadly, the octogenarian Kunhiraman fell ill just a day before his departure to the U.S., and had to be hospitalised. Wife Katherine flew in to attend on him. Hence the award will be received by Barbara Framm, one of their earliest students and dance partner, on their behalf. Barbara will read out their acceptance speech.

Kunhiraman passes away

Just before the Supplement went to print, we received news that Guru ‘Kalakshetra’ Kunhiraman, 84, passed away on June 12, (Thursday), 2.30 a.m., at a Chennai hospital. His demise leaves one wondering why cultural organisations and Governments wait till the fag end of an artist’s life before honouring them with significant awards… This interview with Kunhiraman is the last he gave.

He was a legend

The Dhananajayans on KunhiramansKathakali Asan K.P. Kunhiraman, fondly referred to as Kunhiramettan by all of us at Kalakshetra, was a living legend. by all means. Love and marriage to Katharine Siebel took him away to California. , Kalakshetra ‘s lose was California’s gain. I have to acknowledge the initial training Balagopal and I got from him under the supervision of the great taskmaster, Asan Chandu Panikkar, who brought us to Kalakshetra. To us, Kunhiramettan was a great inspiration. As teenagers, we were awestruck by his performance in class, and the different characters he assumed in Kalakshetra productions. His immortal Viswamitra in ‘Seetha Swayamvaram’ is still a non-challenged delineation.Katherine, after a short stint at Kalakshetra, joined Bharatakalanjali as a full time resident student (gurukula vasam). and mastered the art of Bharatanatyam. under the Dhananjayans. Her’s was the first arangetram in Bharatakalanjali with Natyacharya Adyar K. Lakshmanan as nattuvanar. conducting the event. With excellent and inherent artistic talent, she imbibed a great deal from us not only the performance aspect, but art administration, costume, make-up… all that goes to make a complete artist. , a comprehensive art education which ultimately helped her to shape ‘Kalanjali” dances of India in Berkley. It helped her set up Kalanjali in Berkeley, U.S., which functions as branch of Bharatakalanjali. and we have helped for many years going there to conduct classes and groom Katherine to conduct Arangetrams and performances of her own students. Later she sent her students to our annual Gurukulam summer camps in Yogaville Virginia to prepare them for Arangetrams.The Kunhiramans are the real pioneers in the Bay Area in establishing and propagating Bharatanatyam. and generously help the new entrants, and exodus of Classical artistes coming to CA , encouraging them without pride and prejudice and become a source of inspiration for experienced senior advisors to teachers and performers. They kept judicious relationships between all competitors in the area fighting for space and recognition.Kalanjali Dances of India has been part of the Ethnic Festival for several years now, and they deserve all the respect and honour bestowed on them. one may wonder why it took so long for them to honor this couple, though they have been very highly respected and looked up to.Better late then never , scores of their students and admirers are jubilant about this great event of Kunhiramans getting the “Life Time Achievement Award on June 14th.On behalf of all Kalakshetra alumni and Kunhiramettan’s admirers, we congratulate the couple. , which they richly deserve and hope, the home ground will wakeup soon to catch up with the US honor.