Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair's genius made him one of the all-time greats of Kathakali.
Noble, wicked and grotesque characters in Kathakali came alive when Krishnan Nair enacted them.
Poet laureate Vallathol Narayana Menon was gifted with the acumen to spot budding talents in Kathakali and Mohiniyattom. Perhaps, this was what helped him zero in on the finesse of Puthiyedath Krishnan during a performance at Guruvayoor. This happened at the dawn of the 20th century, on the eve of the founding of Kerala Kalamandalam, the first premier public institution to impart training in Kathakali and similar performing arts. Vallathol's decision to enrol Krishnan as a student of Kathakali at Kalamandalam under the stalwart Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon proved to be a turning point in the history of this classical dance theatre. Within a few decades, Krishnan became the legendary Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, a mega-star of Kathakali; perhaps the first artiste in the field to win and sustain the status of a star. In his autobiography, Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, who hailed from Payyannur, gives a heart-rending account of his impecunious childhood. But that did not mar his zest for Kathakali. The performance of the great Chandu Panickar in the role of Ravana in `Balivijayam' was what prompted Krishnan to step on to the Kathakali kalari. With the patronage of Varanakkott Mana, he was fortunate to receive preliminary training in Kathakali under Chandu Panickar for a couple of years. This helped him enact several female roles including Poothana, the one that later endeared him to spectators all over Kerala and outside.
His autobiography carries segments detailing his pleasant and painful experiences at Kalamandalam. Even while practising the lead roles like Arjuna in `Kalkeyavadhom,' Dharmaputra in `Kirmeeravadhom,' Bhima in `Kalyanasaugandhikam' and the like under the doyen Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon, Krishnan Nair was drawn towards the histrionic magnetism of Thakazhi Kunju Kurup. If Ravunni Menon was brilliant in angikabhinaya, Kurup was astonishingly articulate in satwikabhinaya. The mental make-up of Krishnan Nair made him follow the histrionic obsessions of Kunju Kurup. Following his marriage to the then upcoming Mohiniyattom dancer, Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma, Krishnan Nair moved out of his alma mater. He had by then become a much sought after artiste. His contemporary, Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Poduwal, has vividly recollected in print Krishnan Nair's deft presentation of Poothana disguised as Lalitha. This master thespian's recreation of Ambadi on stage, complemented by the presence of child Krishna, Poduwal remarks, has had few parallels in the history of Kathakali. Krishnan Nair and Kudamaloor Karunakaran Nair immortalised Usha and Chitralekha in `Banayudhom.' The change from female roles to male roles was a spontaneous process. With the demise of Kunju Kurup, there arose a vacancy for a talented artist to display his calibre in the lead roles of Kathakali. In the mid 1960's, Krishnan Nair conquered the entire space and established his reputation as an unmatched artist, especially in south Kerala. The lessons he had in Kathakali literature, under the legendary scholar and critic Kuttikrishna Marar, at Kalamandalam, soon proved to be a boon since dialogues and debates were central to the reputation of a Kathakali actor in central and south Travancore. His face and form were befitting the different facial make-up and costumes in Kathakali. Noble, wicked and grotesque characters in Kathakali came alive when Krishnan Nair enacted them.
His enactment of Nala, Bahuka, Rukmangada, the Brahmins, Raudrabhima, Ravana, Keechaka and Bali was a class apart. `Harischandracharitam' commanded an incredible mass appeal ever since Krishnan Nair began enacting the roles of Viswamitran and Chutalaharischandran. Looking back, Krishnan Nair was more of an actor than a dancer. He was not that keen to preserve and promote the discipline of `Kalluvazhichitta' that had groomed him. Theatrics was his forte and lokadharmi (realistic acting) was his weakness. He enriched the textual interpretations and improvisations in Kathakali. Nalacharitam Aattaprakaram of Krishnan Nair is a theatre manual that encapsulated the knowledge of an outstanding actor. Many awards and honors were conferred on Krishnan Nair. Among them were the Central and State Sangeet Natak Akademy Awards, Emeritus Fellowship from the Union Ministry of Culture and Padmashri. In the evening of his life, Krishnan Nair became more and more spiritual. It is now 16 years since he passed away. Once during an informal chat at his residence, this writer asked him the secret of his radiance on and off stage. Pat came his reply. "When hundreds of thousands of eyes fall on my face every night, an unusual glow envelops me which is nothing but god's grace. This is an imperishable legacy that keeps me going even at an advanced age." As a lonely genius sans predecessors and successors, Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair became unbelievably closer to a myth than any other artiste.