Guru Chemancheri Kunhiraman Nair looks back on his lone and eventful journey as an artiste and teacher. The Kathakali artiste turns 98 on July 4.
His wisdom is his experience. Of his 97 years, guru Chemancheri Kunhiraman Nair has spent over 80 of those donning the colours of Kathakali and teaching dance. But the artiste and teacher wears his age and experiences lightly. On July 4 he will turn 98 and for the past many years his birthdays have been marked by a Kathakali performance by the veteran. But a nagging pain in his right leg will mean a truncated performance at Kozhikode Jubilee Hall this time around.
“I plan to do a small piece – ‘Paripahi’ on the Krishna-Panchali segment. You remember how before the Mahabharatha war, the Pandavas attempted reconciliation, bringing down their demands to five villages, five houses and so on. That is when a hassled Panchali approaches Krishna telling him about the oath she had taken about tying her hair. That is the scene I plan to play,” explains Chemancheri.
Among the various roles in Kathakali, Chemancheri says, it is that of Krishna that has come to him the most. “The vesham that is categorised as kutti tharam,” he says, having donned the role in over a 1,000 stages. Instances, anecdotes and experiences are still intact in his memory. The padams, verses and songs have not been dimmed by age and productions and performances are described by an instant revisit to them. His creative journey has taken him through art of all sorts, to Kathakali and its hallowed sanctums, to the very physical people’s art – the circus and the popular youth festivals.
He grew up in Cheliya village near Chemancheri, a few km away from Kozhikode and was about 15 years old when he became part of the Radhakrishna Kathakali Yogam without his family’s approval. “I wanted to go,” is all he says about wanting to be a Kathakali artiste. It was theatre person Govinda Menon who took him to Meppayyur and Karunakara Menon, his guru till Menon’s death.
“I borrowed four annas from my sister, who suspected I was into something fishy, and travelled to Thikkodi for the first time by train. When we reached Meppayyur and walked into my guru’s house, I remember him asking Govinda Menon, ‘Did you manage to get any children?’” remembers Chemancheri.
From then on for six years, the days were filled with the rigours of learning and the ecstasy of performance. “Training would begin at 3 a.m. with the kacha kettal, uzhichil, kanji, kalari and go on,” remembers Chemancheri. Soon, performances became a part of life and stages turned a daily feature. Venues were scattered across the region and Chemancheri says the troupe often travelled by foot.
“All that was required for the performance went into seven boxes and the performances extended from 8 p.m. to 7 a.m.,” he says. “When it comes to Kathakali, it is about the ‘bhavam’ (expressions). In the past, even when the performances would go the whole night, we used to perform before a full audience with just the ‘nilavilaku’ (traditional lamp), which accentuated the right colours,” he says.
It is after his guru’s death that Chemancheri got introduced to dance. With Karunakara Menon’s passing the Radhakrishna Kathakali Yogam became defunct and Chemancheri returned home. “That was the time the Kadathanattu ruler called him to be part of the Kadathanattu Kathakali Yogam,” says K.K. Shankaran, Chemancheri’s nephew, with whom the veteran lives. The times were early 1940s and turbulent. Old value systems were crumbling and so too the art form and its patrons.
“I remember Kaumudy teacher who taught Hindi at the government school in Kannur asking me to choreograph a dance show with the students for their anniversary. I dissuaded them and told them I knew only Kathakali. But they were insistent and finally made a production that was well received,” remembers Chemancheri.
He created the dance show by borrowing heavily from the art form he knew – Kathakali. Aspects of Kathakali such as kummi and sari nrittam grew to be part of the dance drama. Though there were followers to his dance drama, the urge to learn in him had to be satisfied.
Just before the 1950s he landed in Tripunithura to learn dance from Kalamandalam Madhavan Nair. Chemancheri remembers those days packed with the passion of learning and creativity. Madhavan Nair taught him what is today largely classified as Kerala Nadanam, blending the mudras of Kathakali and the steps of Mohiniyattam. Later, Chemancheri, along with Guru Gopinath, would become the advocates for Kerala Nadanam and relentlessly engage in getting this art form recognised.
Armed with new dance knowledge, Chemancheri returned to the Malabar and grew busy with his two schools.
He never stopped at choreography and performed important roles in the pieces. But the performer and teacher was also a seeker and adventurer. So at Thalassery, when the manager of the Fary’s Circus Company invited him to teach dance to the artistes, Chemancheri could not resist. He joined them and toured the region and in one of those tours came in touch with another guru – Balachandra bhai from Chennai. Under him, he learnt Bharatanatyam for almost a year and also toured with his troupe and gave performances.
His return saw him actively engage in teaching and beginning schools in different regions to propagate art forms. “Of the schools he started, four still survive,” says Shankaran. Perhaps, the one closest to the veteran is the school in his village – Cheliya Kathakali Vidyalayam, established in the early 1980s. The time that Chemancheri immersed himself in dance and dance drama was also the time when Kathakali was in a state of disarray. But the desire to go back to the art form he began with haunted him and he slowly moved towards getting a troupe together.
“He was always thinking of reviving Kathakali in Malabar and started moving towards his goal by buying the Kathakali ornaments people were selling. Once he got all that was needed to start a troupe, he began one and also started the institution,” says Shankaran.
“I do not go there every day, but often enough and see what is happening,” says Chemancheri of the school close to his home where they teach and perform Kathakali. Perhaps what his nephew says sums the performer Chemancheri is. “He is always thinking of how to conceive a dance drama or stage a Kathakali piece. He enjoys performance more than anything and that probably explains why he wants to perform even at this age.”