After being forced to give up studies and running away from home, the young Edapparath Rajan faced several trials and tribulations before earning reputation as a Kathakali artiste. June 13 is his first death anniversary.

When his uncle declined to dole out his school fees any further, Edapparath Rajan was forced to give up studies at the upper primary level. The indignation drove the young boy from his village north of Kochi all the way to Madras (now Chennai), where he hoped to make a living.

The immediate future, in the mid-1940s, proved tough for the native of Ezhikkara near Vadakkan Paravur. But then it set the stage for a glorious quirk of fate — he learnt dance. Eventually, Rajan was back in Kerala as a young man and, courtesy another dramatic twist, became a student of the State’s premier performing-arts institute, the Kerala Kalamandalam.

There was more struggle in store for Rajan. His family recalls those poignant episodes as the Kathakali circuit braces up to organise Rajan’s first death anniversary observance on Thursday at Tripunithura, the town where he lived for half a century since 1963. The master’s daughter, Sobha S, notes that Rajan spent his early life in Tamil Nadu as an odd-jobs boy. “He survived the first three days in Madras on tap water. Then a hotel owner gave him work,” she says.

In the heat, the boy would fetch water in vessels hung from both sides of a bicycle he was given. The errands weren’t short and Rajan earned 50 paise a day.

“Once he fell down from the vehicle. It left him with a dent close to one knee. That stayed on,” the daughter recounts.

Sobha, along with her husband Evoor Rajendran Pillai, a Kathakali artiste and disciple of Rajan, is busy with the last leg of the remembrance function being organised by the nascent Kalamandalam Rajan Master Memorial Charitable Society.

The teenager pulled on, and got an unexpected break that changed the rest of his life. A senior member of renowned dancer Uday Shankar’s troupe happened to notice Rajan — fair and handsome — and asked if the boy was keen to join him.

The prospect of being a dancer thrilled the youngster. Rajan learnt his steps and movements quickly, simultaneously practising basic lessons of south Indian classical music. “Soon he figured in certain song-and-dance scenes of Tamil films (of the 1950s),” says Sobha. “What’s more, he even began choreographing items on his own.”

His choreography skills, aided by his habit of collecting music records, led Rajan to form a small dance troupe. The team was invited for a show in North Malabar as part of a Sahitya Parishath meeting in Thalassery.

The programme also featured Kathakali by Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair.

The star exponent’s performance as Poothana-in-disguise completely captivated Rajan. He was inspired to learn Kathakali, and passed the admission test at Kalamandalam. But the institute’s norms mandated his paying the fees because the candidate was over-aged. “My father also had to pay a pending fee at his school in Paravur to organise his academic certificate. He did all that from his small savings,” says Sobha.

Sobha’s husband Rajendran Pillai, who is now principal at the International Centre for Kathakali in Delhi, says Rajan had to deal with a lot of anxiety in his first year at Kalamandalam. “Authorities there told him that only good performance as a student in the first year would ensure waiver of his fee for the remaining five years. Fearing a botched course, he would take down notes from the seniors after the day’s classroom exercises.”

Rajan was exempted from further expenses at Kalamandalam as he earned the affection of his gurus — all legends, Vazhenkada Kunchu Nair, Keezhpadam Kumaran Nair, Ramankutty Nair and Padmanabhan Nair.

Two years after graduation, Kalamandalam Rajan joined as a Kathakali teacher at the RLV College in Tripunithura. In a pleasant coincidence, that also meant that the legendary Krishnan Nair would be his senior colleague and virtual guide. In 1993, Rajan’s alma mater in Cheruthuruthy conferred on him the Kerala Kalamandalam Award. He was presented the Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon Memorial Award in 2008. A year later, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award came looking for Rajan, who had performed extensively in India and abroad.

Today, his grandson Arjun Raj attributes much of his accomplishment as a Kathakali and Carnatic vocalist to encouragement from Rajan.

The late artiste’s family, friends and Kathakali aficionados are organising a night-long Kathakali performance on June 13, featuring established masters as well as new-generation artistes. The function at Kalikotta Palace will also see the presentation of the first Sri Kalamandalam Rajan Master Memorial Award to septuagenarian Kathakali artiste Kalamandalam K.G. Vasudevan.

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