Introduction of Koodiyattam as a discipline in Kerala Kalamandalam in 1965 threw overboard the caste-based restrictions on the practitioners of this age-old Sanskrit theatre. An epochal event, it witnessed during later years a surge not only in the number of Koodiyattam performers but also in the number of performers of the mizhavu, the sole drum employed in the art form. The mizhavu, unique to Kerala, came to the spotlight at the national level recently when Kalamandalam Rajeev was selected for the Ustad Bismilla Khan Yuva Puraskar, awarded to young artistes by the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Delhi. The recognition is singular since the award is being given to a mizhavu artiste for the first time since it was introduced in 2006. Widely acclaimed as an ingenious drummer noted for his disciplined demeanour, Rajeev had the privilege of accompanying all the stalwarts of his time ever since he graduated from Kalamandalam. Moreover, he is endowed with a rare creativity that is reflected in the numerous contemporary productions anchored on the mizhavu. He isthe secretary of Ammannur Chachu Chakyar Smaraka Gurukulam, Irinjalakuda. Rajeev shares with FridayReview how a boy like him, with no artistic traits, was transformed into a much sought-after drummer in the world of Koodiyattam over the years. Excerpts...

The accidental entry

After my father’s death, my family returned to Cheruthuruthy from Andhra Pradesh, where he was a contractor. Being the only son, the onus of earning a living fell on my shoulder, Fortunately for me the mizhavu maestro Kalamandalam Eswaran Unni was our neighbour and he persuaded me to join Kalamandalam in his class. That was in 1985. I was totally ignorant of any art form except Harikatha to which I was exposed while in Andhra. So I simply followed my gurus, including P.K. Narayanan Nambiar and V.K.K. Hariharan, mechanically learning the preliminaries. The arangettam was during the second year. Notwithstanding my lack of interest, I completed the four-year course successfully. It was again my guru Eswaran Unni who secured me a scholarship that enabled me to do two years of higher training.

A God-given opportunity

A turning point in my life occurred in 1989 when I got a chance to perform at Ammannur Gurukulam by coincidence. This was an eye-opener. Slowly I began to realise the potential of the instrument that I had been handling so far. In 1992 I was absorbed as a regular staff of the Gurukulam. The Gurukulam provided an unprecedented experience and the ever-going rehearsals helped me comprehend the varied styles of drumming in accordance with the performance of the character on the stage. I realised that I was being properly groomed for plays.

With the legend

During the Diamond Jubilee celebrations of Kalamandalam in 1990, Madhavamman (Ammannur Madhava Chakyar) was invited to present ‘Balivadham’. There were many mizhavu artistes, including me, in the institution. I had longed to accompany him, but was not allowed. But, later, when I joined the Gurukulam, I was thrilled to play for him for hours on end. This was the greatest achievement in my life. Further, Madhavamman took special care about the percussion section and instructed us how to play for different occasions. Learning from such a great master had profound influence on my artistry. It was the heyday of the gurukulam with a series of performances across the country in programmes organised by SPIC-Macay and festivals such as Khajuraho, Bharath Rang Mahotsav, etc. My joy knew no bounds when Madhavamman insisted that I along with my junior Hariharan play for him at UNESCO in 2001 during the historic announcement of Koodiyattam as an ‘Oral and intangible heritage of mankind’. I was the principal drummer for him until he retired owing to poor memory.

Learning at the Gurukulam

Production of Natanakairali’s magnum opus ‘Shakuntalam’ itself was a great training as, we all sat together and prepared the ‘aattaprakaaram’ (acting manual), an exercise hitherto unheard of in the history of Koodiyattam. Venu chettan (G. Venu) helped us to look at Koodiyattam as a theatre form. We also benefitted highly from the World Theatre Project in which apart from us, artistes from Sweden, China and Africa collaborated. The interaction with them and the joint production ‘East of the Moon, West of the Sun’ enriched our experience beyond description.

Role of Sangeet Natak Akademi

Sangeet Natak Akademi’s support from 1990 has been pivotal in sustaining this art form. As of now, we have a wealth of young talents, which would have been impossible to produce but for their help. But only with enhanced assistance will we be able to scale new heights.