Thespian Kottakkal Sivaraman who passed away on Monday redefined the Nayika of Kathakali. A homage to the actor par excellence.

In the history of Kathakali, it is hard to come across many actors who could endear themselves to aficionados as trendsetters. Only a privileged few have been endowed with the vision that transcends the mundane in the enactment of characters dictated by emotional complexity. Kottakkal Sivaraman was one of those rare gems; the glow of his artistry had an intensity the rasikas had never experienced before. His demise leaves a vacuum that would be almost impossible to fill.

As the nephew of the eminent Acharya Vazhenkada Kunju Nair, Sivaraman grew up amidst the sights and sounds of Kathakali. Once he entered the kalari for physical training, Sivarman felt its rigourous discipline a bit too overwhelming. He once fondly remembered the pains his uncle took in tuning his movements and gestures while portraying leading male characters in the plays of Kottayathu Thampuran. But soon the guru realised that Sivaraman had an innate talent for histrionics.

An inner urge also prompted Sivaraman to opt for female roles. With his delicate features, sensitivity and sensibility, he lived on stage female characters such as Mohini, the Lalithas, Damayanthi, Rambha and Devayani; he revelled in their grace and expressional grandeur. From Thakazhi Kunju Kurup to Kalamandalam Balasubramanyan, Sivaraman had been the unrivalled Nayika for many generations of artistes.

Profound characterisation

In the portrayal of each and every female character, Sivaraman's primary concern was to facilitate a profound rapport between the written dialogues and the visual interpretations. With the result, the Nayikas he depicted were neither repetitive nor nonchalant in their discourses.

Sivaraman's Damayanthi in ‘Nalacharitam Part I' was brimming with curiosity, wonder and excitement; in Part II, his Damyanthi was shyness incarnate in the opening scene of ‘sambhoga sringara'; in Part III, the pragmatism of the heroine was well-reflected alongside her pangs of separation; Sivaraman's supreme presentation was Damayanthi in Part IV – before her suppressed tears, strength of conviction and indomitable pride, Bahuka paled into insignificance.

Mohini in ‘Rukmangadacharitam' was one of Sivaraman's authoritative representations. Her lust giving way to anger and vengeance towards King Rukmangada was highly evocative when Sivaraman enacted the role. His Sita in ‘Lavanasuravadham' was at the pinnacle of grief in the presence of Hanuman. A true rasika could read from his eyes a flashback of the Ramayana. The inexplicable agony of the disrobed Draupadi in ‘Duryodhana Vadham' was yet another classic depiction.

In the same play towards the very end, one could find in the eyes of Draupadi rays of wild delight when Raudra Bhima ties up her hair with blood-drenched hands. As Kunthi in ‘Karnaspadham,' Sivaraman straddled lust and guilt, sorrow and pride while disclosing her pre-marital dalliance with Lord Sun. The subtle expressions conveyed through brief glances and gestures in this context have had no parallels in the history of acting in Kathakali. Here Kunthi freezes in humiliation and self-derision before Karna.

Sivaraman had an extraordinary talent to deal with the ambivalent feelings and contradictory positions some of the major female characters like Kunthi were confronted with in Kathakali. In short, psyche rather than physique was Sivaraman's forte on stage.

From his guru, Sivaraman inherited the habit of reading, scribbling and thinking. Having identified his forte, he began exploring the psyche of almost all the female characters in Kathakali, especially those carried away by powerful sentiments. Sivaraman had absolute trust in the text of each Kathakali play, its characterisations and context.

Multiple emotions

He disengaged himself from the classical aesthetic canon of alienating from the characters for structural accuracy. Instead, he got himself into the multiple emotions of characters like Damayanthi and Kunthi.

Sivaraman could erase his personal ego completely to be one with the characters he portrayed either independently or in proximity with heroes. His eyes and lips mirrored the struggle each character waged within herself. Inner contradictions within the characters were Sivaraman's preferred territory.

‘Vyabhicharibhavas' (transitory expressions) seldom consumed the ‘sthayi (enduring) ‘bhava' when Sivaraman enacted the roles of Urvashi, Draupadi or Malini.

Sivaraman was hostile to melodrama, though it haunted him on occasions when the actor was swayed by poetic utterances. ‘Nyshadhanivan taan' and ‘Enganum undo kandu' in ‘Nalacharitam Part IV' are classic examples. Silences had an evocative grandeur in the enactment culture of Sivaraman. He had stilled many a powerful male character (enacted by leading Kathakali actors) on innumerable occasions with his silences that were pregnant with meaning.

Spartan simplicity

The commercialisation that has engulfed Kathakali and similar art forms had little impact on Sivaraman's career and life. He had always been hostile to inflated pride and conceit. He had kept himself away from soulless shows. While he was fully conscious of his strength, Sivaraman had little hesitation in acknowledging his frailties. He had repeatedly expressed his angst about aging, especially for an actor who donned female roles in Kathakali. More than once, he had publicly declared that he had stopped doing female roles. Yet, an irresistible fervour made him change his decision, probably much against his will.

Sivaraman was one of the most fortunate artistes in Kathakali in the sense that several honours at the State and national level came his way one after the other. But little did he rejoice in the material achievements. He had always retained his composure and was a contented man. Sivaraman had an intuitive reading of the ephemeral and the eternal in life.

A couple of months back, this writer visited him at his house in Karalmanna village, Palakkad. He had returned home after a stroke had confined him to a hospital bed for some time.

The moment he saw me, Sivaraman said: “Daivam na vipareetham” (God won't will the opposite). This famous line is from Unnai Warrier's ‘Nalacharitam,' which was his constant refrain in life. With the passing of Kottakal Sivaraman, a Damayanthi, who was sculpted by the supreme poet, has left us for ever.