Kalamandalam Kuttan has been chosen for the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award for Kathakali.

In addition to traditional plays, Kuttan was in the forefront for the choreography of new plays in Kathakali such as ‘Ayyappa Charitam.’

Performing artistes as a whole are usually at the mercy of art patrons for their livelihood and are victims of the whims and fancies of the samajikas when it comes to recognitions at an aesthetic level. The history of an art form like Kathakali speaks volumes about the struggles of artistes caught in this dichotomy. There are a few artistes who have opted out of the endless struggle to lead a relatively uneventful life on and off stage. One among them is Kalamandalam Kuttan who has been chosen for the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award (New Delhi) for the best Kathakali actor of the year.

The Vellinezhi village of Palakkad district and its neighbourhood have a long history of performing artistes, especially in Kathakali. Little wonder that Kuttan, who hails from Thirunarayanapuram, was attracted to this art at a tender age.

In 1951, he joined Kerala Kalamandalam for training in Kathakali under the highly disciplined masters Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair and Padmanabhan Nair. A decade-long tutelage made him a distinguished young artiste. Kuttan could imbibe the form and content of the cholliyattams of all the leading plays, including those of Kottayathu Thampuran and Karthika Thirunal. Laziness had no place in his student life and his dedication caught the attention of his uncompromising gurus. The gurus were so impressed by the clarity in and rigour of his cholliyattams that they even thought of absorbing Kuttan in the Kalamandalam. But it did not happen.

Kalanilayam days

In 1964, Kuttan joined Unnai Warrier Smaraka Kalanilayam at Irinjalakuda as an instructor of Kathakali. The late Pallippuram Gopalan Nair, a veteran actor, was its Principal. After Kuttan’s arrival, he became the principal instructor there for nearly three decades to follow.

In addition to traditional plays, Kuttan was in the forefront for the choreography of new plays in Kathakali such as ‘Ayyappa Charitam.’ As a teacher, Kuttan was as rigorous as his gurus. Under him, scores of students came out of Kalanilayam to become noted actors. Among them are Kalanilayam Gopalakrishnan, Mukundan and Gopinathan. All of them owe their knowledge of techniques and skill in the enactment of various roles to Kuttan.

Under Kuttan, the reputation of the Kalanilayam Kathakali troupe spread beyond the borders of Kerala and they earned national and international appreciation. When he finally bid adieu to Kalanilayam, Kuttan was a contented artiste.

Although Kuttan is equally at ease in the enactment of Pacha, Kathi and Minukku roles in Kathakali, his true forte is Kathi characters such as Duryodhana, Keechaka, Ravana and Sisupala. His restraint in the angika and satwika abhinayas has won the appreciation and recognition of viewers and critics. Tall he is. Yet his execution of hand gestures and facial expressions seldom move out of the structural framework of the Kalluvazhichitta.

Untainted by melodrama

He may lack the effervescence of some of his more renowned colleagues. But he never revels in lokadharmi uncalled for by the texts and the contexts. On closer scrutiny, Kuttan’s acting denotes a classicism untainted by melodrama and oversimplification. The nucleus of the Kalluvazhichitta remains safe in his hands.

In the cacophony of the present-day cultural scenario, genuine presences often go unnoticed. But Kuttan has no grievances. He now leads a retired life in the Kuruvattoor village, far from the madding crowds and the limelight.

On hearing the news of the national award, his modesty once again came to the surface. He said: “It is the blessings of my gurus rather than my merit that have brought me the honour.”