Uncompromising in classicism, Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair strode along the royal path of Kathakali

Perhaps Kochi topped the cultural belt that Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair best managed to flummox all his life. It is another matter, though, that the Kathakali master never enacted roles tailor-made for a particular kind of audience in his seven decades of artistic career.

The quandary, in fact, has primarily to do with the traditional aesthetics of the dance-drama’s buffs living in an around the ancient city. For, geographically, Kochi is virtually in the cusp of two major schools of contemporary Kathakali.

Only a bit down from the coastal city will the map show places like Vaikkom and Cherthala which have for long been bastions of the classical art form’s southern style. Exponents of its realism-inclined techniques have had a luxurious tryst with Kochi, showcasing their dramatics that starkly contrasted with the stage conduct of Ramankutty Nair.

That was because the maestro had inherited his craft from a territory that is north of not just the Periyar, but further up the Bharatapuzha. His body language was densely stylised — and that is where it bamboozled many a Kochiite.

To put it simply, archetypal Kathakali aesthetes around Kochi noticed that it was only stock movements that Ramankutty Nair presented on the dais, but their repetition had a refreshing charm. That failed them from becoming his outright critics.

As if to add a new dimension to their ambivalence, a Kathakali maverick from upstate Malabar happened to settle in a small town off Kochi in the second half of last century. Payyannur-born Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair chose Tripunithura as his place to settle in 1960, after a crucial stopover at a couple of villages around Aluva.

As the 20th century’s overarching presence in the world of Kathakali, Krishnan Nair conveniently married the touches and tactics of his contemporaries of Travancore. If this eclecticism earned him more fans in Kochi, Ramankutty Nair’s monolithic approach to Kathakali stumped the aficionado with an inscrutable grace that they sensed in none else.

For many who have watched night-long performances of the two virtuosos, there existed a great professional rivalry that manifested overtly as well as subtly.

Often one heard stories of how Ramankutty Nair’s Narada specially countered snubs from Krishnan Nair’s Ravana in a Balivijayam show at Thekkan Chittoor, or the way the latter’s famed Nala was outperformed by a spirited portrayal of Kaatala by the “grammar man” Ramankutty Nair at the Chottanikkara temple festival.

Piquantly, both the mavens shared their alma mater; they had emerged from the same classroom. In fact, both were direct disciples of Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon (1881-1949), whose experiments with Kathakali eventually crystalised as the textbook of the ‘Vadakkan chitta’ in Kalamandalam.

Yet, if Krishnan Nair subsequently sidetracked in his exploration about the scope of facial emoting, Ramankutty Nair stuck to the basics and made economy of space his trademark. Many knew what he would perform the next minute, yet kept waiting for that moment to actually happen — and relish it, and then again when it was identically produced on another stage.

Overall, what was the Ramankutty magic? The master retold the same stories, repeated his stock movements. His characterization of veshams seldom changed. Instead they altered the audience’s overview about his art. Rather, of Kathakali as a whole. Now, that exemplifies a classicist.

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