K.K. GOPALAKRISHNAN

Kathakali legend Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair is the first Kathakali artiste to be honoured with the Padma Bhushan.

The first Padma Shri for Kathakali went to the late Vazhenkada Kunju Nair (1908-1981) in 1969, followed by the late Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair (1914-1990) in 1970. Then it took more than three decades to honour another exponent - Keezhpadom Kumaran Nair in 2004, making him the sole surviving Kathakali exponent who has been honoured with a Padma Shri. So the news that 82-year-old Kathakali exponent Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair has been chosen for the Padma Bhushan this year has been welcomed by Kathakali buffs in Kerala, though many feel that it is a belated recognition at the fag end of his illustrious artistic life. He is the first and only recipient of Padma Bhushan from the field of Kathakali.The veteran attributed it to the "Blessings of my guru." "Undoubtedly, it's an honour to the art of Kathakali. I dedicate it at the feet of my guru and my predecessors who struggled for the sustenance of the art," he added.

Perfectionist

As a performer, Ramankutty Nair is hailed for his perfection in cholliyattom (acting of librettos to set choreography). With 11 years of strenuous training under the legendary maestro Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon, admired for his strict adherence to technical and aesthetic perfection, it was only a matter of time before Ramankutty Nair became a flawless performer with an enviable range. When his mentor polished his talent with apt training methods, it resulted in the emergence of one of the greatest actors of Kathakali; extolled today as the best exponent of plays that are characterised by a rigid grammar and choreography. His movements on stage highlight the aesthetics of the Kalluvazhi tradition of Kathakali, perfected by Pattikkamthodi.Ramankutty Nair is mostly associated with characters representing rajo guna (egoistic qualities) with `kathi' make-up. These characters are arrogant and not always noble, but they are valorous. Ravana, Duryodhana, Keechaka, Narakasura and so on come in this category. His Hanuman (`vellathadi' make-up) in `Kalyanasoughandhigam,' `Thoranayudham' and Lavanasuravadham are also among his best roles.

Setting standards

Kathakali scholars consider the standard set by Ramankutty Nair in playing such characters as the `yardstick' for evaluating artistes. Heroes of the Kottayam stories (especially Dharmaputhra in `Kirmeeravadham') are essayed by him with panache. His portrayals are within the framework of traditional grammar. An interesting fact is that all of his celebrated roles are known for their harmonious interaction with percussion instruments, especially the chenda. His long-term associate, the late maestro Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Poduval, was a crucial factor in this regard. Poduval's unparalleled talent on the chenda enhanced Ramankutty Nair's characters. He and Poduval teamed up with maddalam maestro Appukutty Poduval, right from the beginning of their artistic career and were referred to as the `Kutty trio' of the Kathakali stage. Ramankutty Nair's contributions to aharya (costumes) and manodharma abhinaya of Parasurama in `Sitaswayamvaram' require a special reference. The aharya aspect, which he had changed, based on the Ravi Varma paintings, was initially frowned upon by some critics. But Vallathol endorsed it after due consultations with scholars of the period like Parikshit Thampuran of Kochi. Shortly after, he became the artiste who donned the roles many times. Almost all the students who learnt Kathakali at Kerala Kalamandalam during 1948-1985 had the fortune of being taught by the titan. In 1985 he retired from his alma-mater as Principal, putting an end to his stint at Kalamandalam, an association that began at the age of 13.Several awards and honours, including the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award and fellowship, the Kalidas Samman of the Madya Pradesh Government and first State award for Kathakali of Kerala, are among a few other honours came in search of Ramankutty Nair, a legend in his life time.