K.K. Gopalkrishnan meets nonagenarian Guru Chemmencherry Kunhiraman Nair, the last link to the legendary Kalladikkodan style.
He will be 97 this June. There has been no idle moment in his life. Of late, instead of waking up at 4 in the morning, he gets up an hour later “due to advanced age”. People from all walks of life from the northern districts of Kerala solicit his blessings. For them, he is the asan (guru) of Malabar.
However, what makes him a living fable is the fact that he is still active on the Kathakali stage. Perhaps, he is the oldest among all the performing artists of the country. The secret? “Oh, I am indebted to nothing but the discipline that I follow and the old but systematic training in Kathakali that I underwent,” reflects the master with a child-like smile.
He hasn’t had an easy life. His parents passed away when he was very young. He was in the care of his maternal uncles, as was the practice among the Nair community of Kerala, until he was 15 when he “left home to take up Kathakali”. His only daughter Hemalatha passed away when she was three. “Unable to cope with her demise, my wife Janaki too died leaving our only son Pavithran, hardly two years old, to me,” reminisces Chemmencherry. “I understood what life is all about by that time.”
He became a student of Meppayyur Radhakrishna Kathakaliyogam, patronised by C.C. Appukutty Nambiar and got trained under Guru Karunakara Menon, the apostle of the then prominent Kalladikkodan style.
He had a stint with various dance forms and dance choreographies too. Kalamandalam Madhavan, Madras Balachandra Saraswati and Salem Rajaratnam Pillai were the Gurus of Chemmencherry, who for almost five decades was the sole apostle of dance training in northern Kerala.
Earlier, Chemmencherry had been active in the struggle for India’s Independence and participated in the Salt Satyagraha.
Along with Guru Gopinath, Chemmencherry played a significant role in popularising Kerala Natanam, a dance stream that the former conceived of and executed with adaptations from Kathakali and Mohiniyattam.
In the history of Kathakali, while the late Mankulam Vishnu Namboodiri (1900-1981) dominated southern Kerala by playing the role of Krishna, it was Chemmencherry in the north of the State. “Indeed Krishna is my dearest, though I love all the roles”, smiles the master whose debut performance was as Draupati in the play Kiratam. Shortly after that, noticing his unequivocal flair, Karunakara Menon assigned Chemmencherry the role of Krishna in several performances, more importantly when Menon himself donned a role in the play.
The energy that the master, who now needs a walking stick consequent to a recent surgery, imbues on stage as Krishna even at the age of 96 is something to experience personally.
(The writer is the director of the Centre for Kutiyattam of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Delhi.)