If Keezhpadam Kumaran Nair could serve the Kerala audiences with a fresh course of innovative classicism steadily for a quarter century since 1980, it was least because the Kathakali master was young that time. True, he was always vibrant and imaginative, but the actor-dancer was into his mid-sixties when a classical arts institute in his native Palakkad district recalled him after a decade’s break.

That invitation from Sadanam Kathakali Akademi based east of Ottapalam put an end to Keezhpadam’s crises-riddled profile and frequent stay outside his home state. It wasn’t particularly pleasing for him to double up as a performer of arts other than what he had learned rigorously as a teenager. That way, the return proved to be not just the start of a late-flourish story; it scripted a seminal chapter in the modern history of Kathakali which has origins in the 17th century.

Not that Sadanam had suddenly come out of its own set of worries. Financial shortage co-travelled with the establishment since its inception in 1953, forcing Keezhpadam to quit more than once as the head with the institute in Peroor village near Pathiripala.

So, what prompted the maestro to bid goodbye to his five-year-old Delhi stint and rejoin Sadanam? Keezhpadam’s student, who is also a son of the founder of the Akademi, has an interesting story to reveal.

“Basically, it was to give me advanced lessons in Kathakali,” says Sadanam Harikumaran, now secretary of the establishment that was set up by his late father K Kumaran, a freedom fighter. But what was so compelling for the maestro to take up the invitation? “Therein lies a story of personal commitment for the guru to my father,” he adds.

In the late 1960s, Keezhpadam’s eldest son was staring at a tough future after completing his pre-degree course with unimpressive marks. Gowri Kumar’s academic predicament unexpectedly found a happy end when the Sadanam founder offered a free seat for the boy in the teacher’s training institute that was a sister concern of the Akademi.

“My guru and his son used to stay in one room in the Sadanam premises during those days in 1967-68,” recalls Harikumaran, who was then training under Keezhpadam. Harikumaran had begun learning Kathakali as a class 3 student in 1965, five years after his illustrious teacher joined Sadanam.

By the early 1970s, the Akademi faced near-collapse, what with the TTC institute locked out along with the government-aided pre-, senior- and post-basic schools the parent organisation had run besides a string of cottage industries on Gandhian lines.

“His love for Kathakali led my father to retain the Akademi — with skeletal staff,” notes Harikumaran, clarifying that Keezhpadam topped the list of casualties. In fact, the exponent had sensed the phase-out, as he had already been asked to “supervise twice a week” regular classes by a couple of his disciples.

“I ran errands to bring Asan from his house in Vellinezhi,” Harikumaran rewinds his days of frequent visits to Keezhpadam house in the remote village near Cherplassery. “It wasn’t a happy phase for us all.”

Even so, Keezhpadam did not completely snap ties with Sadanam, as he would join the Akademi’s troupe shows of Kathakali. At one such venue occurred a mishap that disturbed Kumaran Nair — so much so, the maestro left Kerala yet another time.

Scholar S.K. Nair’s story-play Manikanta Charitam was being staged at a Palakkad college in 1975. Keezhpadam donned the anti-hero Udenan in Kathi vesham. “Somehow, a part of his back costume caught fire (from the stage lamp). Asan suffered no burns, but the episode left a deep scar in his mind,” notes Harikumaran.

Shortly, the guru left for a pilgrimage to North India. That ended with his taking charge of the International Centre for Kathakali (ICK) in the capital, where his frontline pupil Sadanam Balakrishnan was a staffer.

At ICK, where he had a part-time association since the early 1970s, Keezhpadam went on to work for more than half-a-decade. Then a mail reached him from Sadanam, requesting him to hone the skills of the institutor’s son — with a hint of quid pro quo. Keezhpadam returned to the placid banks of the Bharatapuzha.

From then, there was no looking back. Keezhpadam, brimming with varied layers of aesthetics he earned during sojourns outside Kerala since the mid-1930s, infused a novel sensibility in the Kathakali circuit — from north Malabar to southern Travancore. A frontline disciple of iconic Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon (1881-1949) of the body-centric Kalluvazhi style, Keezhpadam received the Padma Shri, three years before his death on July 26, 2007, aged 93. All this, after trysts with a wide range of cultures: sharing stage with America-born dancer Ragini Devi in 1938-39, collaborating with actor M G Ramachandran in sing-and-dance scenes of Tamil cinema (1942-54) and acting as the tutor of the protagonist (played by megastar Mohanlal) in 1999 Malayalam movie Vanaprastham besides teaching Kathakali at Kalamandalam, Kottakkal Natyasangham and Mooriyath Variyam at Chunangad.

This Friday, Sadanam is organising a remembrance day at its auditorium.

Keezhpadam’s disciple Sadanam Ramankutty and aesthete K B Raj Anand will deliver a memorial lecture, at the function that will be inaugurated by Dr K K Sundaresan, registrar of Kerala Kalamandalam. Classical musician Mannur Rajakumaranunni will chair the proceedings where veteran mizhavu drummer P K Narayanan Nambiar will be the chief guest. A Kathakali show (Santangopalam and Kiratam) will follow.

T.K. Sreevalsan

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