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Updated: October 11, 2012 17:17 IST

Keeping the torch burning

Ambili Ramnath
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Sreedharan Asan
Special Arrangement Sreedharan Asan

Sreedharan Asan, veteran artiste and guru of Kakkarissi Natakam, was recently felicitated at the Guru Pooja organised for him in Thiruvananthapuram by Soorya Stage and Film Society. “More than anything, I feel you are honouring me for the 89 long years that I have traversed,” he says with a candid smile.

Sreedharan Asan’s daughter Shailaja Vijayan takes up the thread of the conversation. She says: “I have seen audiences rolling in mirth and applaud in appreciation of my father’s performances. I am proud that my father continues to sing and perform with undiminished zeal, even today. It is a pity that he has not been able to properly document the songs or dialogues, though several persons have tapped his brain for resources for their work. He remembers the time when he was denied the pleasure of seeing a Kakkarissi Natakam in his youth. The memory urges him to put up shows all for free, saying that he does not want to refuse the enjoyment to anyone at all. He is indeed magnanimous! Had he even completed his schooling, my father would have enjoyed the comforts of a government job.”

The asan weaves a tapestry of memories- of his life and passion for this folk theatre. Excerpts from an interview with the veteran artiste …

Theme of Kakkarissi Natakam

Kakkarissi Natakam narrates the story of Lord Shiva and Parvathy who came to earth in disguise as the Kakkalan and Kakkathi, who form the tribe of nomadic fortune-tellers. Kakkarissi Natakam has all the elements of traditional Indian theatre and is a coming together of music, dance and mime. Humour, satire and social commentaries are woven into the story, making it hugely popular in appeal – at least in its bygone heyday.

Early days

This art form originated in the southern parts of Kerala. During the early years, the natakam would not be performed in major temples, but rather in front of minor deities only. The audiences, too, would be mainly from the socially and economically disadvantaged sections of society. Performances would last throughout the night up to the wee hours. There is a false notion that this art form was practised only by the Kakkan community. But I know for a fact that the artistes came from several social groups – perhaps a love for the arts brought them together.

Tryst with Kakkarissi Natakam

My father, Neelakantan, was fond of arts and music – he used to hold readings of the Ramayana, sing bhajans and the like. In his youth, Kakkarissi Natakam was at the height of its popularity. Once a troupe came to perform in the neighbourhood of Nedumangad, where we belong to. Tickets for the performance sold out in no time. My father could not get a ticket and had to return disappointed. It was then that he mooted the idea of starting a troupe by training youngsters from our own village and approached Gopalan Asan who was the guru of that performing troupe. When the plan materialised, I was naturally roped in to learn this art form.

As a student

I was just a little lad then, not even out of primary school. Training and performing went hand in hand and thus, would stretch late into the night. During the day, I used to attend school, very much a sleepy-head and was often the target of classmates who used to tease me for nodding off in class. When I could not stand it any longer, I simply dropped out of school, though I was a topper and smart in studies. I continued to learn Kakkarissi Natakam and perform under Gopalan Asan, until his death.

Starting out on his own

Shows came to a standstill with the passing away of our Asan. But friends and local acquaintances encouraged me to resume the act and so there I was, putting together my own troupe, Natana Kairali. Soon I was travelling all over the country staging the ‘natakams’ at a hectic pace.

Memorable performances and accolades

During the reign of the Maharaja of erstwhile Travancore, my troupe was honoured with an invitation to perform at the “vetta and vilakku” festival of the Padmanabha Swamy temple in Thiruvananthapuram. We staged the show at the World Malayalam Conference and in Delhi, I performed for leaders like Indira Gandhi and Rajiv Gandhi. In fact, Rajiv Gandhi honoured me with a ‘ponnada’! I have been very lucky to have been at the receiving end of a lot of affection and encouragement from stalwarts like Guru Gopinath and others. Soorya and Krishnamoorthy Sir [Soorya Krishnamoorthy, founder of Soorya] have provided me with a venue to showcase my art on several occasions.

Keeping the art alive

I still keep the torch burning at Natana Kairali, though students and training sessions are few and far in between. However, I do feel that there is still a lot of interest in this art form and I perform in and out of the country every now and then. Shows are also telecast on TV and on Doordarshan in particular. And it’s show time, of course, during Onam!

No regrets

I have no regrets about not getting a government job. I have attained much more satisfaction and gained far more recognition than I would have had with an ordinary job.

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