Haripriya Nambudiri does not remember when she began watching Kathakali. The characters and the stories swept her into an enchanted land of passionate romance, fierce battles, pathos, devotion, friendship and spiritual bliss. Kathakali plays, actors and performances were subjects of intense discussions at home and amongst her relatives. But it was only when she was 25 that Haripriya discovered that she wanted to be more than a critic and viewer. The teacher of chemistry wanted to be on the stage as a Kathakali performer. Gradually, the late bloomer on the Kathakali stage, who idolises the late Kottakal Sivaraman, managed to find a place on the performance circuit by specialising in female characters. Haripriya is also doing her doctoral research on female characters in Kathakali. The Kathakali artiste talks about her evolution as a performer and student. Excerpts from an interview:

Initial days as a student

Being exposed to Kathakali at a young age was a natural phenomenon since I was born into a traditional Nambudiri family. It was the lyrical beauty and aesthetics of Kerala’s traditional art form that attracted me to this male-dominated field. I had learnt Kathakali padams from Vrinda Varma during my school days. After my graduation and post-graduation in chemistry from Sacred Hearts College, Thevara, I was working as a teacher in Chinmaya Vidayalaya, Vaduthala, Kochi, and later in a branch of the school in Tripunithura. It was in the same schools that I had studied. I was also running a boutique in Tripunithura when I decided to take the first steps as a Kathakali performer. My family was against the idea as they felt I was too old to be learning Kathakali from scratch. However, in 1997 I gave up my job and began learning Kathakali vesham from RLV Damodara Pisharody. In 1998 I had my arangetram as Sathi in ‘Dakshayagam’ at Cheranalloor Karthiyayani Temple, Kochi. It was a defining moment because I felt at home on the stage. It must be a result of all the recitals I had seen over the years.

Overcoming the fear factor

That was my biggest stumbling block. Tales about performances and artistes used to dominate discussions at home. So I wondered if I would be able to manage the weight of the costume and the discipline required to perform in a Kathakali play. However, the feedback was encouraging and so I continued my classes. I also began performing in the Ladies Troupe of Tripunithura. In 2000 I began learning from FACT Padmanabhan, who is a specialist in female roles.

At home in female roles

By then I had identified that I felt confident and comfortable in female roles. I did essay a few male characters such as that of Lord Krishna in ‘Santhanagopalam’, Arjuna in ‘Gitopadesham’ and so on. But I felt that my physical stature and appearance were best suited for female characters. Moreover, I was, and I remain, my biggest critic. So I wondered if I had the vigour and stamina for male roles. That is why I decided to focus on female characters in Kathakali.

Finding a guru

In 2004 I shifted to Coimbatore and that is when I found a guru in Kalamandalam Vasu Pisharody. It was a turning point in my life because I had found a teacher who was passionate about his art and was dedicated to teaching it in the best possible method. He was exacting but patient. I would stay at his place and there were days when classes would go on from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Beginning from the basic mudras and movements, he would explain the context and scope of a character before making me go through the mukhabhinaya and movements. In the evenings, he would make me sing and dance to the padam. This ensured that I got an overall view of the art form and a wholesome training in it. There was no piece meal effort to train me in one aspect of the art and leave the other. He gave me a new perspective and understanding of Kathakali and the learning still continues.

As a performer

I have been lucky to get stages and roles all over Kerala and India. I have also been able to perform with eminent artistes. In the meantime, I anchored a television programme ‘Kathakali Vettom’ on Amrita channel. I know I have a bright future as a Kathakali performer of female roles. Many youngsters these days prefer male roles such as kathi and pacha to female characters. As such, I know I can always find stages. Moreover, I must be one of the few female performers who do their own make-up. I went to chutti artistes to learn the art. It was bitter experience that motivated me to learn how to do my make-up. Prior to a performance, each artiste is busy with his/her make-up and costume. They seldom get time to help another artiste with the make-up.

Research and teaching

Recently, I completed my doctoral research on the feminine in Kathakali at Kerala Kalamandalam Deemed University under the guidance of E.N. Narayanan. I was a guest lecturer for Mohiniyattam post graduate students at Kerala Kalamandalam Deemed University, when I help them understand the nuances of female characters in Kathakali. Although there are many women who want to learn Kathakali, I have not yet accepted any students.

The future

Ten years from on, it is hard to predict where I will be as a Kathakali performer. As everyone knows, it is not easy to be a Kathakali artiste. Up and coming artistes do find it difficult to make ends meet and remuneration is not all that great. I am enjoying and learning being a Kathakali performer and I would like to leave it at that.