Kalamandalam P.G. Radhakrishnan has carved out a niche as a Kathakali singer whose bhava-laden rendering has enhanced the performance of actors on stage.

Ever since Kerala Kalamandalam came into being, the vocal music of Kathakali has gone through unprecedented developments spearheaded by disciples of Kalamandalam Neelakandan Nambeesan, the doyen in the field. While several of the vocalists in the post-Nambeesan-period navigated the mellifluous terrain of popular plays such as ‘Nalacharitam’, a couple of them safeguarded the tradition even as they strived for a distinctive identity. Of them, Kalamandalam P.G. Radhakrishnan, hailing from South Kerala, is a name to reckon with.

Radhakrishnan had evinced a keen interest in music as a child, which persuaded his parents to place him under the tutelage of Carnatic vocalist Kadakkavoor Velukutty Bhagawathar. In course of time, he joined Kerala Kalamandalam to learn Kathakali music under the veterans Neelakandan Nambeesan and Gangadharan. He soon grew familiar with the grammar and stylistics of Cholliyattam while continuing his training in Carnatic music from A. Sankara Warrier. Within six years, Radhakrishnan could grasp the essential characteristics of functional music. He came out of his alma mater with flying colours.

Radhakrishnan’s singing of slokams and padams in Kathakali distantly echo the voice culture of one of his mentors – Kalamandalam Gangadharan. But the breadth and depth of his swaras are incomparable. Be it the plays of Kottayath Thamupuran or those of Kottarakkara Thampuran, each line that emerges from his throat brims with sentiments of the characters and the contexts. ‘Kandalathimodam’ in raga Kamboji in the play ‘Kirmeeravadham’, ‘Panjaalaraajathanaye’ in ‘Kalyanasaugandhikam’ or ‘Kuvalayavilochane’ in ‘Nalacharitam - Day II’ find enchanting expressions in the gamaka-laden renditions of Radhakrishnan.

The confidence and clarity with which he sings rarely sung padams in the Ramayana play like that of a ‘conversation between Dasaradha and Viswamitra’ is astounding. Radhakrishnan is a born Ponnani (principal) vocalist. He almost never sings as a Sangidi (supporting) on stage. Many years ago, at the Karthika Thirunal Auditorium in Thiruvananthapuram, he happened to be the co-singer of Kalamandalam Unnikrishna Kurup. Together they stormed the stage with their full-throated singing of Irayimman Thampi’s ‘Keechakavadham’. Radhakrishnan spared no effort to enrich the avant-garde discourses of Kurup, especially in the sringara padam ‘Harinaakshe jana mauli mane’.

In the mandram, madhyam and thaaram, Radhakrishnan’s voice seldom gets thin. He refrains from crooning and artificial modulations. His respect towards visual semantics of Kathakali is evident in the treatment of each and every raga he deals with on stage. The gravity of the scenes are never undermined by the way he traverses the contours of each raga. His grip over rhythm and tempos is mind-boggling. He definitely has an inclination for ragas such as Abheri, Sindhubhairavi and Bhagasri.

Radhakrishnan refuses to be subservient to the actors on stage. Like his great Guru, Neelakandan Nambeesan, Radhakrishnan feels that the principal vocalist is the director of the Kathakali stage. As an uncompromising vocalist, Radhakrishnan has not found favour with some of the outstanding actors of the day.

Down with a paralytic stroke, Radhakrishnan is not as regular on stage now as he used to be. Still his prowess as a vocalist remains invincible.