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Portrait of stylistic integrity

V. Kaladharan
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Profile Veteran Kathakali artiste Madavoor Vasudevan Nair has strived hard to keep alive the Kaplingadan baani of Kathakali. V. Kaladharan

Guru Chengannur Raman Pillai, during his lifetime, represented the pride and stateliness of the southern school of Kathakali, popularly referred to as the Kaplingadan style. Of his most intimate disciples, Madavoor Vasudevan Nair is, perhaps, the only actor who, on stage, is capable of creating déjà vu in the minds of experienced prekshakas (audience) for whom Chengannur was an icon. Vasudevan Nair has spent his entire life to see that the Kaplingadan bani of Kathakali survives despite the challenges it faces from the exponents of Kalluvazhi chitta of South Malabar. His life, over the last half a century, has been a struggle to safeguard the dignity of an ‘expressional behaviour' inherited from his guru.

Early phase

Vasudevan Nair grew up in Madavoor village in Thiruvananthapuram district. He learnt Kathakali from a local Asan, Parameswaran Pillai. Soon afterwards he came under the tutelage of Chengannur Raman Pillai. The training under the great guru bore the stamp of the gurukula shikshana. Vasudevan Nair mastered the techniques of movements, gestures, and expressions from Guru Chengannur and then he moved on to characterisations. In the four major categorisations of Kathakali characters based on make-up and costuming, he could prove his calibre in kathi (villainous), kari (black beard), vellathaadi (white beard, representing Hanuman), and minukku (sages and female characters). Vasudevan Nair began his career in Kathakali by enacting female characters. This was but a passing phase. Within a few years, he shifted to enacting middle-level male characters.

Guru as role model

Vasudevan Nair was keen to follow his illustrious guru in his approach to and involvement in the Kathakali characters. Having grasped every nuance of acting and dancing from Raman Pillai, Vasudevan Nair felt at home while essaying the roles of Ravana, Duryodhana, Jarasandha, Keechaka, Bana and the like. Even for actors with innumerable years of expertise on stage, the role of Hanuman is an unenviable task.

The ashtakalasam of Hanuman executed in the line, ‘Manasi mama kimapi…,' in the play, ‘Kalyanasaugandhikam,' is the piece de resistance of Vasudevan Nair's performance. Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Poduwal, a maverick chenda player, has eulogised the ashtakalasam performed by Vasudevan Nair as Hanuman.

Of the navarasas, sringara and veera are his authentic forte. His portrayal of King Bana, especially in the scene ‘Gopuram kaanal' (watching the tower), bears a unique sumptuousness. When it comes to the minukku roles, sages and Brahmins such as Sudeva in ‘Nalacharitham' and Sundara Brahmin in ‘Rukmini Swayamvaram' are close to his inner traits.

Stylisation and realism

In the southern school of Kathakali, the border line between stylisation and realism is, at times, thin. Take for instance Vasudevan Nair's interpretation of Ravana in Kareendran's play, ‘Ravanavijayam.' In order to establish the musical dexterity of Ravana, Vasudevan Nair does the raga alaapana of Sankarabharanam on receiving the divine sword, Chandrahasa, from Lord Siva. Such a protracted verbal acting is an extreme exception in the framework of characterisation in Kathakali.

In applying lokadharmi (realism) for the discourses of various characters, Vasudevan Nair follows the footsteps of his guru. In the play ‘Rajasooyam,' when Bhimasena tears the body of the demon king Jarasandha and throws them to two sides, the two parts come together in a while and Jarasandha is reborn. Vasudevan Nair enacts the coming together of the body parts and the rebirth of the demon with striking histrionic dexterity.

Nelliyode Vasudevan Namboodiri who has shared countless stages with Vasudevan Nair has delightfully recollected the latter's awe-inspiring angikaabhinaya as and when he, as King Bana, displays his prowess in playing the mizhavu with his thousand hands. Vasudevan Nair's hold over the rhythm and the fluidity of angikabhinaya mutually contribute to the vim and vigour of the scene.

Exercising discretion

Vasudevan Nair has clearly exercised his discretion in the portrayal of non-textual improvisations in his stage presentations. If there is enough time available, he would go on elaborating the attams keeping in mind the performance traits of his predecessors who wielded such roles as Ravana, Keechaka, and Hanuman.

Within the time constraints, Vasudevan Nair has ingeniously truncated the ‘segments of imagination,' winning esteem from the cognoscenti. In other words, even while adhering faithfully to the rigour of tradition, Vasudevan Nair is positively sensitive to the dictates of the changing times. He has always been prudent in sustaining the textual and contextual logic in characterisation. This quality stems from the fact that Vasudevan Nair has a good number of disciples from whom he demands a sense of responsibility and seriousness in their ‘actions on stage.' Hardly does he play to the gallery to entertain the uninitiated masses.

Awards and recognition

Madavoor greets his admirers and colleagues alike with an unfading smile. His words are free of grievances and malice.

Being a contented artist, Vasudevan Nair has never been in the ‘queue' for winning awards and accolades. But all the prominent honours from the State and the Central Government have come his way, like the Central Sangeet Natak Akademy Award, Kerala Kalamandalam Fellowship and the State Government Award for the best Kathakali actor. To crown all these, he was honoured with Padma Bhushan for his contributions to Indian art and culture.

Nothing in life enchants Madavoor Vasudevan Nair more than being active on the Kathakali stage.


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