Spotlight Veteran chutti artiste Kalanilayam Parameswaran, author of the Kathakali make-up treatise Chutti: Kalayum Shastravum, talks about his evolution as an artiste. Athira M.

Kalanilayam Parameswaran trained to become a Kathakali actor, but perhaps the bright and bold colours that “created super humans out of ordinary beings” mesmerised him to such an extent that he found himself learning the nuances of chutti, or Kathakali make-up, on his own. And, as fate would have it, even before he had a formal initiation into the art of chutti, he was chosen to apply make-up on the face of the legendary Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair.

Parameswaran’s nearly half-a-century old career would have continued had it not been cut short by excruciating back pain that he suffered on account of sitting for several hours while applying the make-up on the artistes. He has now reduced his work, but is still very much there for his disciples when they need advice. FridayReview caught up with him in the capital city when he had come down for the release of the second edition of his book, Chutti: Kalayum Shastravum.

Born at Mutholapuram in Ernakulam district in 1943, he started learning Garudanthookkam (a ritualistic art form performed in Devi temples) inspired by his elder brother, Velayudhan. However, Kathakali artiste Panavalli Pappupillai noticed his talent and started teaching him Kathakali when he was 12. He had his arangettam as well – as Krishna in ‘Kuchelavritham’. Later on, Parameswaran was introduced to Pallippuram Gopalan Nair, principal of Unnayi Warrier Memorial Kalanilayam, Irinjalakuda, and he eventually got admission at Kalanilayam in 1962.

“I was enamoured by the make-up. In fact, I often used the left-over chutti paste to train myself on pots, as is done in chutti classes. I picked up the lessons from chutti artiste Kangazha Madhavan, who used to come to Kalanilayam for various performances. I gave him gurudakshina and had my formal chutti arangettam at the Koodalmanikyam temple festival,” he remembers.

Recalling that defining moment when he applied chutti on doyen Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, he says: “The chutti artiste failed to turn up and somebody told the thespian that I knew the art. I didn’t have the time to gather courage and confidence, but everything went off well.” Having worked with stalwarts of the art form, he says he can’t ask for more. “Chengannur Raman Pillai, Mankulam Vishnu Namboothiri, Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair, Keezhpadam Kumaran Nair, Kalamandalam Gopi… I’ve worked with them all,” he says.

There have been several memorable instances as well. “Once, after I dressed him up as Hanuman, Keezhpadam Kumaran Nair bowed in front of the nilavilakku and then to me before getting on the stage. Till then I’ve never seen an artiste showing that respect to a chuttikkaran . I was taken aback by his gesture. When I asked him the reason, he told me, ‘I was bowing before the creator.’ That was a touching moment,” says Parameswaran.

Parameswaran has also learnt ‘koppu’ (costumes and other embellishments) from M.K.Panicker, who was in charge of the section at Kalanilayam. After passing out of Kalanilayam in 1968, Parameswaran continued in the institution as a faculty member of chutti for the next 35 years till his retirement.

Although the art of applying chutti has changed over the years – from using just rice paste to layers of white paper – Parameswaran asserts that the essence of the art hasn’t and can’t be changed. “It was Kangazha Madhavan asan who folded the sides of the paper. There is often a debate over which style is better. I think that all styles of chutti are equally beautiful. What matters is that the chutti should be done neatly,” he says.

Nevertheless he is unhappy over the treatment often meted out to chutti artistes. “I represent a group of artistes who seldom get noticed on the Kathakali circuit. Although chutti has been acknowledged as the thickest make-up by the Guinness Book of World Records, it is quite appalling to note that chutti artistes and pettikkaar ( uduthukettukaar or costume assistants) are rarely acknowledged,” muses Parameswaran. The job of a chutti artiste, he says, is demanding when it comes to Hanuman, Chuvanna thadi, Kathi roles, and so on in which the make-up will take at least three hours to complete.

He has applied chutti for Koodiyattom artistes as well and the list includes the legendary Ammannoor Madhava Chakyar. A recipient of the Gurupooja award of the Kerala Sangeet Natak Akademi, Parameswaran was recently chosen for the Kalamandalam award (2011) for chutti.

Parameswaran, an accomplished Kathakali actor, used to enact roles that are rarely performed, such as Bheeru, Kattalan, Karkkodakan, Veerabhadran, and Kali, to name a few.

“I’m a sculptor by birth who was trained to become a Kathakali actor, but became a chutti artiste,” he observes in his book.

Art of chutti

“T heppu or the basic foundation of the make-up is done by the artiste himself. The next step is applying the chutti. Manayola (Arsenic bisulphate), chayilyam (Mercury sulphate), chenchalyam (gum of the Maruthu tree), blue (katti neelam), kajal and coconut oil are some of the ingredients that go into the make-up. Manayola is ground and when mixed with oil gives yellow. When manayola is mixed with blue, green is obtained. In order to get the shine, chenchalyam is added. Adding more blue yields a dark green shade. Powdered chayilyam and oil give red colour. The chutti is pasted on the face using spirit gum. Earlier, sap of raw bananas was used.”

I think that all styles of chutti are equally beautiful