Ammannur Madhava Chakyar was the last of the triad of Koodiyattam.
Death is the final full stop, but in the case of great artistes, even death cannot bring a stop to the art they nurtured all their lives. Such was the case with Ammannur Madhava Chakyar, one of the greatest Koodiyattam artistes produced by India. The fact that the eminent asan, who breathed his last this past Tuesday, was cremated with full state honours shows the esteem in which he was held. The state and central governments are regularly criticised for not promoting culture, but this time, the art community breathed a small sigh of approval.
And while the grandeur of his art lives on in the imagination of all who saw him perform, there is a sadness too, at the snapping of the last link with the old generation of Chhakyars — Koodiyattam performers.
Sudha Gopalakrishnan of the National University for Educational Planning and Administration points out that Ammannur was the last of the triad whose two other pillars were Mani Madhava Chakyar and Paimkulam Rama Chakyar. Each represented a distinct school of the art. “He was the last and because he was the youngest of the three, there is a lot of documentation of his work,” notes Sudha who had a long association with the asan during his performing and teaching career, ever since the Koodiyattam wing was started under him at the institute Margi in Thiruvananthapuram in the 1980s. “The good thing was that the recognition of Koodiyattam by Unesco as a ‘Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity’ came in his lifetime (2001),” says Sudha. But he was among the artistes who sustained the art when it was at its lowest ebb, practiced in near oblivion inside the temples.
“Now Koodiyattam artistes are not starving, but he and his generation must have gone through a lot of hardships to sustain it.”
While it was Paimkulam Rama Chakyar who brought the art out of the temple confines onto a secular stage, and Ammannur may have had his reservations about it, says Sudha, he knew how to move with the times and took it across India and the world.
Sudha recalls, “I had the privilege of accompanying him and other artistes to Paris after Unesco’s recognition. Koodiyattam was invited to the General Assembly of Unesco. That was an unforgettable performance. The way he showed Parvati Viraham, it was hair raising.”
Those who saw him perform never forgot. Ashok Jain, head of the Rajasthan Spic Macay chapter, still cherishes the image of the Chhakyar showing conflicting emotions from each eye, reflecting demon Pootna’s dilemma at seeing baby Krishna. “I saw him 18 years ago at the Pune Convention of Spic Macay. That was a turning point in my life. Till then I was a student member of Spic Macay just for the heck of it. But when I saw him it was so intense, it was unbelievable. It was the first time I realised how rich is Indian dance and music. And how terribly intense. I feel he was the greatest performer of the world, not just India.”
As meticulous a teacher as he was a performer, the asan, says Sudha, was “very conventional in his approach.” He was committed to the chitta. Margi Madhu, Margi Sathi and others were among his first batch of students. Later at his own gurukulam in Irinjalakuda, he taught youngsters like Kapila Venu, Rajneesh and Suraj Nambiar. The artistes he groomed, agree his admirers, were the greatest gift he left behind.
Also, he was a fund of resources. It was with his profound experience and the attaprakaram (‘actor’s manual’) of the “Ascharya Choodamani” that Margi was able to present a complete production of the work.
As in the final throes of the heroes he portrayed so powerfully, the end did not come suddenly to Ammannur Madhava Chakyar. “It was a slow ebbing away,” says Sudha. “With people like this it is not just death.”
Perhaps, but in that final triumphal ascent, no mesmerised spectators were privileged to attend.