K.P. Nandipulam senses blend of cultures working positively for the folksy dance-drama

In the thick of action midway his show, K.P. Nandipulam regales the audience with witty verbal retorts to questions from the Kurathiyattam singer who doubles up as the Muthiamma’s dialogue partner.

Then, off his mask of the old woman, the lean artiste positions himself unobtrusively in a corner of the crowd that is watching the last part of the 90-minute performance.

At one point, he produces a sudden loud clap. That proves to be the tacit signal for a new character with a country torch to enter the stage from nowhere and heighten the climactic effect.

Not many get to notice that the actor whose funny talks made them laugh only minutes ago is now the director of the rustic dance-drama.

“That is what I want as well,” quips sexagenarian Nandipulam, a name he acquired from his native village in Thrissur district. “Well, Nandipulam is in fact my place — near Mupliyam, off Puthukkad. When my debut show got over as a youth, some well-wishers reduced my name Karumali Padmanabhan to initials. For style, you know.”

In his 35 years as a Kurathiyattam artiste, Nandipulam believes he has managed to add to the entertainment value of the two-century-old art without diluting its essence. The costumes have bettered, he adds.

“The story stems from a portion of the Shiva Purana,” Nandipulam, 62, notes, referring to the plot where goddesses Parvathi and Mahalakshmi meet in the woods, disguised as Kurathi tribeswomen, become friends and happen to strain relations only to later regain the bond, courtesy some smart intervention by Saraswathi — as Muthiamma.

A fourth character in the play is the Kuravan, who is in fact Shiva and is seen briefly suspecting the fidelity of his wife Parvathi. His eventual victory over the evil Shani highlights the “all’s well that ends well” motto.

Kerala folklore scholar Sasidharan Clari notes that this art form was typically performed by the Kurava community who also spoke Tamil. “Not long ago, it was staged outside the temple precincts,” he adds.

Today, Kurathiyattam practitioners face no such taboo and are not necessarily from one community, Nandipulam notes, citing himself as an example. “I studied the art from (late) Puliyanam Parameswaran Nair.”

Even so, the linguistic moorings continue to show. For instance, “Pachamalai Pavizhamalai Engamalai Naadu” is how one of the songs starts. Intelligently, the verses are tuned to what sound like the ‘Kavadi Chintu’ branch of music popular with subaltern Tamil population as well as Carnatic concert circles.

Else, the vocal backdrop, supported by the mridangam, sticks largely to tunes that bear a Kerala touch. Nandipulam’s singer croons shades of classical ragas like Arabhi and Anandabhairavi in ditties that come under folksy Vanchipattu and Kummi.

As for the hilarious talks he leads as the Muthiamma, Nandipulam says they bring out “typical Thrissur words and usages that are fast fading away” in an era of increasingly standardised spoken Malayalam.

Equally, he is delighted that Kurathiyattam is finding more stages of late. “A decade ago, I used to get not more than two dozen stages a year. But in the last season, I staged 150-plus shows,” he claims, attributing the surge to Kerala Tourism’s sponsorship across the State.

Also part-timing as an Ottan Thullal artiste trained under late Guruvayur Sekharan, Nandipulam’s children are his pupils too. The college-going daughter, Krishnaveni K.P., dons Kuravan’s role, while son Girish assists him on the stage and in the greenroom while on leave from upcountry Ambala where he works as an Army Havildar.

“When Girish is with me, the whole energy level of the show rises like anything,” Nandipulam says with obvious pride.

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