His wrinkled face sports a naughty smile when Cherthala Thankappa Panickar narrates that interesting episode which happened not far from his native place six-and-a-half decades ago. As a musician just out of his teens, Panickar hadn’t formally debuted when a senior Kathakali exponent popped a strange question at the youngster.
“You know how to count, right? One, two, three, four?” asked actor Thakazhi Kunchu Kurup, as dusk fell at the temple in Kalarkode near Alappuzha. “Yes,” replied Panickar, his mind still groping in the dark.
Soon, as the lamp was lit and Santanagopalam was presented, Kurup, as the protagonist Brahmin in the story-play, would slyly point a finger or two backward for Panickar to note how many times he had to sing the line for the gestures to be over. Finally, dawn came and it was clear: Panickar had saved the show in the unexpected absence of a top vocalist.
A year after that litmus-test incident, the lanky youth had his proper arangettam — at his neighbourhood Kaliyogam in Varanad. “In the southern school of Kathakali, one accompanies the lead vocalist, singing shankidi for story-plays in the run-up to actual arangettam. Up north, your first appearance at a show is itself the debut,” clarifies Panickar, now 85, leading a retired life at his wife’s house near Moovattupuzha in Ernakulam district.
Creditably for Panickar, he went on to become an acclaimed vocalist of central Kerala’s Kalluvazhi school as well, courtesy his tutelage under Kalamandalam Neelakantan Nambeesan who redefined 20th-century Kathakali music. Panickar’s stint in the Palakkad belt ended in 1962 when he was appointed music tutor at RLV College in Tripunithura. His involvement with both the Kathakali styles, though, continued. Tune-wise, Panickar experimented a lot by introducing ragas less familiar to Kathakali, thanks also to a solid base he had from Carnatic music lessons in childhood. In the evening of his life he lives at rugged Payipra since his post-RLV days post-1983.
So is it sanyas now? “Well,” Panickar clears his throat and says, “I wish I could sing at Cherthala and Tripunithura one last time.”