Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair’s contribution to the grammar of Kathakali was immeasurable. The doyen’s 85th birth anniversary falls on October 7.
The late Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair, illustrious son of the legendary Pattikkamthodi Ramunni Menon, a supreme artiste who perfected and introduced the Kalluvazhi ‘chitta’ (school) in Kalamandalam, was hailed as the last word in Kathakali grammar.
Kalluvazhi chitta was systematised by Kuthanur Sankhu Panicker (popularly known as ‘Dasamukhan Sankhu Panicker’) and Karumanassery Krishnankutty Bhagavathar under the supervision of Chitrabhanu Namboodirippad in Olappamanna Mana. The first actor from Kalluvazhi ‘chitta’ was Kuyilthodi Ittiraricha Menon. Ramunni Menon was Ittiraricha Menon’s senior-most disciple. The maverick Ramunni Menon learnt the Natyasastra from Bhagavathar Kunjunni Thampuran and Cheriya Kochunni Thampuran in Kodungallur and imbibed every nuance of expression from the treatise to elevate Kathakali as natya to a greater realm by redefining the Kalluvazhi chitta. Among the many who trained under him, his son, Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair was the last.
Born on October 7, 1928, Padmanabhan Nair started his rigorous training under his father at the age of 10. His father was his mentor at Kalamandalam, at P.S.V. Natyasangham, Kottakkal and also at home. His debut performance was at Kerala Kalamandalam as Sree Krishnan of ‘Subhadraharanam’ with the padam ‘Maninimaradi koopum’.
Even though he tried to learn Kathakali music, his father didn’t allow him to continue it, as Ramunni Menon was very particular that his son should concentrate only on acting. The artiste was also fortunate to enjoy his father’s episteme in Natyasastra, with which he reformatted many characters in Kathakali.
After a two-year stint with Santa Rao’s ballet troupe in Bangalore, Padmanabhan Nair returned to Kalamandalam when Kalamandalam Neelakantan Nambeesan, who was his colleague, wrote a letter to him beseeching him to join the institution. He joined the institution in 1951.
Closely following the teaching legacy of his father, Padmanabhan Nair designed a pedagogical style of his own, developing expressionism according to the classifications of veshams - ‘kuttitharam’, ‘idatharam’ and ‘adhyavasanam’. While kuttitharam characters dealt more with nritham, in idatharam, it is half-nritham and half-abhinaya, and in adhyavasanam, focus is on abhinaya ( there is significance for nritham in adhyavasanam veshams too, but as it is naturally merged from training sessions, only abhinaya will be taken into account in the final stage).
In the words of Kalamandalam Gopi, Padmanabhan Nair’s disciple: “Asan was such an affectionate person. He injected the notion of beauty in cholliyattam into our histrionic skills. He upheld the status of Kalluvazhi ‘chitta.’”
The late A.D. Bolland, who dedicated a better part of his life to Kathakali, had made a 12-hour video documentation of Padmanabhan Nair’s cholliyattam (set choreography for plays) of major characters in Kathakali. This project was initiated by the late K.P.S. Menon.
Padmanabhan Nair believed in doctrinaire implications of Kathakali, for which he spent more time in the kalari honing the skills of his disciples, than on the stage. His main aim was to preserve the art form for posterity in all its sovereignty. Giving ample space to flourish, Padmanabhan Nair encouraged youngsters as co-actors, vocalists and percussionists.
As a performer
As a performer, though, he never wandered through the wastelands of low-level depictions of characters. Admittedly, propriety was his mainstay in essaying roles. Madambi Subrahmanian Namboodiri, a senior Kathakali vocalist who was also his colleague at Kalamandalam, recounts wistfully: “We worked together in the kalari and the stage. In kalari, if necessary, he would sing to give us suggestions or correct the musical part of the practice. Although he was strict in the kalari, he was very accessible outside. When we made mistakes, he never admonished on stage; instead, he quietly advised them backstage or later.”
Padmanabhan Nair’s enlightening discussions with the equally bohemian Koodiyattam maestro, the late Painkulam Rama Chakyar, have paved way for some renovations in Koodiyattam, such as, re-designing costumes and accoutrements and introducing ‘uzhichal’ (massage after application of oil before the commencement of physical exercises) for Koodiyattam students.
The illustrious artiste immortalised characters such as the Ravanain ‘Thoranayudham’ (Azhakiya Ravanan) and ‘Balivadham,’ the Hamsam in ‘Nalacharitham’, Brahmanan in ‘Santhanagopalam’ and Narada in ‘Balivijayam’. For a short while he also took up and shone in the bearded roles of Kali in ‘Nalacharitam’ and Bali in ‘Balivadham’. His favourite role, though, was that of Dharmaputra in ‘Kirmeeravadham’ – incidentally, the favourite of his father too. Padmanabhan Nair retired from his tenure as Principal of Kerala Kalamandalam in March 1989.
The artiste’s last performance was as Arjuna in ‘Subhadraharanam’ at the Kottakkal festival in March 2006. With his head held high, Padmanabhan Nair, the non-conformist icon of pedagogical integrity, passed away on April 3, 2007. His 85th anniversary falls on October 7. Sree Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair Memorial Trust in Shoranur commemorates the doyen every year.
In 1980-82, Padmanabhan Nair wrote a book titled ‘Kathakali Vesham’ published by The State Institute of Languages.
Well versed in all the departments of the art form, his magnum opus, ‘Cholliyattam’ is an authentic document containing the acting manual of several plays elaborating the techniques of acting to minute detail. His elder son Venugopal remembers his father engaged in writing his magnum opus late at night at home by working out tala patterns and marking the lyrical placements and acting techniques. “It took 14 years of assiduous efforts to document an authentic text for practice,” says Venugopal.
‘Natyacharyante Jeevithamudrakal’, the biography of Pattikamthodi Ramunni Menon, co-written by Jnayath Balan, bagged the Odakuzhal Award in 2005.
‘Attakathasaram’ is a collection of ‘attams’ (acting in a general sense) from 17 plays which has also been published by The State Institute of Languages.