Koodiyattam exponent and Padma Shri awardee Kalamandalam Sivan Namboodiri reflects on his tryst with the art form.

The news that Koodiyattam exponent Kalamandalam Sivan Namboodiri was selected for the Padma Shri this year was enthusiastically welcomed by connoisseurs of classical theatre. For the past four decades they have watched as Sivan built a pedestal for himself in the field, step by step. His depiction of majestic characters such as Ravana and Baali has always been outstanding. This is perhaps the natural outcome of his assiduous adherence to the pristine craft of his preceptor Painkulam Rama Chakyar and his appropriate response to his own creativity, both of which always leads to inimitable improvisation.

Sivan was brought up in Shoranur, Palakkad district, close to Kerala Kalamandalam, which was at that time functioning on the south bank of the Bharathapuzha. Sivan's father, Ammankodu Madhavan Namboodiri, eked out a living in agriculture and his mother, Devaki Anthrjanam, too had precious little to pass on to her children, of whom Sivan was the third son. Along with his elder brothers, he studied in nearby schools at Kanayam and Vatanamkurissi, but was not inclined to continue his studies after he failed to pass the class seven examination. On a whim, when he was 14 years old, Sivan decided to join Kalamandalam.At the time Kalamandalam had just added Koodiyattam to its curriculum, and persuaded by poet Vallathol Narayana Menon and K.N. Pisharoty, Rama Chakyar, the doyen of Koodiyattam, had already begun to organise the new department. Sivan reflects on his tryst with Koodiyattam. Excerpts…

How did you come to take up Koodiyattam?

One hot summer afternoon in 1965, I walked into Kalamandalam, clad only in trousers and a sleeveless banyan, with the intention of joining the institution. There I saw a discussion in progress. I waited for someone to come out and after a while, an unassuming middle-aged man emerged and asked me what I was doing there. At first I was evasive and then I said that I would like to learn Kathakali. He told me that there were no vacancies for Kathakali but requested me to wait a while. He then went inside and came back in a few minutes, and asked me to go in saying: ‘They would like to speak to you.' That turned out to be my admission interview. Later I come to know that the man was Adiyaal, an office staffer and Kathakali actor, and that ‘they' were the interview panel – Dr. Pisharoty, and my ‘gurunaathan' (preceptor-lord), Rama Chakyar.

The trio said: ‘Boy, let us see how you laugh.' I burst into loud laughter and all the three followed suit. Then I was asked to knit my eye-brows in different ways and finally walk in different ways. They appeared pleased with my performance and I was asked to wait outside. Subsequently, Adiyaal came and congratulated me saying that I was selected for admission to the Koodiyattam course.

It was something like ‘falling into right,' was it not?”

No doubt, it was Painkulam asan who brought the esoteric art-form of Koodiyattam out of the limited environs of the temples and paved the way for all aspirants irrespective of caste and creed…

Gurunaathan's initiative to institutionalise the training of Koodiyattam also augured well for the art form. Unknowingly, we were all witnesses to a milestone in the art form when he crystallised Koodiyattam kalaris. When ‘Paanivaadathilakan' Narayanan Nambiar, mizhavu maestro, joined the Koodiyattam faculty as its chief percussionist, for the first time, a Nambiar's mizhavu, synchronised perfectly with every detail of a Chakyar's acting.

Did Kalamandalam provide a healthy ambience for the symbiosis of Koodiyattam with Kathakali and Mohiniyattam?

Unlike many other stalwarts, gurunaathan encouraged his disciples to learn from each other and watch, whenever possible, performances of other classical art-forms and ponder over possibilities of embellishing Koodiyattam with everything appropriate and obtainable from anywhere. He made ‘uzhichil' (whole body massage) obligatory for trainees in male characters of Koodiyattam. I had the privilege of being massaged regularly by Padmanabhan asan (Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair) and my classmate, Kalamandalam Rama Chakyar, by Ramankutty asan (Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair).

We received from the Kathakali kalari sufficient training in movements and postures that enhance the strength and flexibility of body and feet –‘meyyurappatavu' and ‘kaal saadhakam,' respectively. Most luminaries at Kalamandalam such as Vazhenkada Kunju Nair, Neelakanthan Nambeesan, Krishankutti Poduval, and Unnikrishnan Elayath used to gather at the Koodiyattam kalari to talk about the aesthetics of performance. Those informal sessions benefited us a lot.

It is said that the credit for significantly revamping and beautifying the make-up and costumes of Koodiyattam also goes to Painkulam Rama Chakyar…

Gurunaathan was an all rounder. Enlisting the help of reputed costume and make-up expert Kalamandalam Govinda Warriar, he introduced several changes in the over all appearance of both male and female characters. For noble female characters, they borrowed some of the best aspects of costuming and make-up from Mohiniyattam.

Why have you never presented koothu?

Gurunaathan once observed that my forte is ‘nokku' – acting employing the eyes – rather than ‘vaakku' (with the spoken word). I have stuck to that.

In the context of Kalamandalam's current transition to a deemed university what is the future of transfer of knowledge in art forms such as Koodiyattam?

In our day, training began at 4 a.m. and continued till late at night. Such a system of teaching has gone for ever. Gurunaathan was the first to reduce the performance time of each episode in Koodiyattam in tune with the tastes of contemporary connoisseurs. But never did he compromise on the quality of the performance. The same principle can be applicable in harmoniously blending age-old gurukula system with the current University system of art education.

What is it that keeps you going?

I am fortunate to have a wonderful family. Both my children are well-settled and my wife, Indira, teaches Sanskrit in a nearby school. From 1975, I have been part of the faculty at Kalamandalam, where I am now a visiting professor.

Rasikas all over the world have expressed their appreciation of my performance; I have received accolades from Kalamandalam and the State and Central Sangeet Nataka Akademis. Above all, I performed ‘Kailasoddhaaram' (Ravana lifting Mount Kailasa) and ‘Parvathiviraham' (Parvathi's separation from Siva) in Paris before the UNESCO jury, and they adjudged Koodiyattam as worthy of being included in the ‘Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity.'

In the words of Vallathol: Aanandalabdhikkini entu venam? (‘What else does one need now for bliss?')

*This report has been corrected for a factual error