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The last from the Kavungal clan

Kavungal Chathunny Panicker will be given the Kerala State Kathakali Award tomorrow at Thripunithura. K. PRADEEP listens as the maestro reminisces on his life, achievements.

A SMALL hall in downtown Milan, Italy, was almost full. Kavungal Chathunny Panicker was unusually tired that day. But he knew that he had to go on stage, at least for 30 minutes. The television cameras were ready. Once the maestro started action, all eyes were riveted to this artiste of compelling personality. The piece Chathunny Panicker chose for the evening was not from the usual kathakali repertoire. He decided to present an elephant instead. Extracting the spirit of kathakali, without conforming to every traditional detail, emotions were conveyed through facial expressions and perfect movements. The `elephant' swayed, fanning its huge ears, hurling mud on its back, turning impatient at times. He would have loved to go on longer, but fatigue forced him to stop.

Lesson for life

"I remember how four or five people came up to me and said that they thought the performance was too short. They had taken a flight to Milan just for this and sounded sorely disappointed. That was when I decided that, in future whatever happened, even it meant falling dead on stage, I would not make any such compromises," recalls the 82-year-old kathakali exponent.

And Chathunny Panicker tired to keep his word till he was felled by a paralytic stroke three years back, which disabled his power of speech and restricted the movement of his right hand. "I would have been performing even now. There are so many characters, so many plays that I would have loved doing again and again," he mumbles with great effort.

Record of 99 days

Countless are the characters that this great dancer brought alive on stages in India and around the globe. He even set a record of sorts staging the `Duryodhana Vadham' for 99 days at a stretch, playing two roles, of Krishna and Bhima. But the one he holds close to his heart is that of Hanuman in stories like `Kalyanasougandikam.' And `Thoranayudham.' "Maybe that was because people always wanted me in to play that role, though there were so many other characters that I relished presenting on stage... " he stuttered, searching his vague memory for the right words. "And playing Hanuman with Krishnan Nair as Bhima was real fun."But then for nearly three decades, right from the time Chathunny Panicker joined Mrinalini Sarabhai's `Darpana' in Ahmedabad, his performances in the State became quite rare. "We used to come down every year for summer vacations. And for me that was the time to join some of the other great kathakali masters for some enjoyable performances. Out of the two-month vacation I used to get hardly a few days for social visits." Lured back to his village during the kathakali season, he used to transport the rasikas who thronged the temple courtyards, under the moonlit skies, to a world of gods and demons with the beauty and rhythm that was simply magical.

Painful decision

Probe him further on being separated from his native land during his prime and Chathunny Panicker answers without batting an eyelid. "Yes. Surely it was painful. Looking back, I missed out on so many years, so many opportunities."

However, it was this rather bold decision to accept Mrinalini Sarabhai's invitation that won for him a place among the greats of Indian classical dance. For about a quarter of a century from 1950, Chathunny Panicker was an indispensable presence at various cultural festivals held in the country and abroad. His name sends a flutter amongst kathakali buffs, even among those who have just heard about him, or seen photographs of his performances, but never seen him live on stage.

Darpana years

"Those years with Darpana did give me a lot of exposure. It gave me the chance to travel around the world, meet a lot of people and also to win many admirers."

When he left Darpana for good and decided to settle down to a peaceful retired life in his village, Thichur (in Thrissur district), he hoped to make up for the long lost years. For a few years he was very active on stage, set up a school in an attempt to continue the famous Kavungal style of which he remains the last link, till he fell to that cruel stroke, forcing him to wind up the venture.

Numerous awards and accolades have come his way. The Gujarat Sangeet Natak Akademi award, Central Sangeet Natak Akademi Award, the Kerala Kalamandalam Fellowship, the Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Akademi Fellowship and in 2003 he was nominated by the State government for the prestigious State Award for his inestimable services to Kathakali. But the master still treasures the gold amulet and medal given to him by Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru who was one of his ardent admirers.

Life does not have a rewind. If it had, Chathunny Panicker would love to go on stage, at least for one last time, in Thripunithura, a place he always loved to perform.

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