For a sexagenarian artiste of the ritualistic dance drama Mudiyettu, which has lately been inscribed by UNESCO on the list of intangible heritage of humanity, Varanattu Narayana Kurup a.k.a Nanu Kurup is unusually modern. The Mudiyettu tradition must be passed on to also girls who have the dedication, interest and respect for rules, Nanu Kurup tells S. Anandan.

“You are bound by certain customs when you learn a ritualistic art and that holds for them as well. While you have women temple attendants, why shouldn't girls perform Mudiyettu?”

Even as he obsequiously observes the customs set down for the participants of the drama traditionally performed in the courtyard of Bhadrakali shrines, he makes it a point to accommodate among his disciples a few girls, who would inherit the heritage theatre from him. What used to be a shamanistic art is now performed outside the portals of shrines too.

At the Koratty-based Kizhakke Varanattu Mudiyettu Kalasangham, which was launched by him last year, there are about 30 students, including a few girls and a medical surgeon, learning the chenda or the Mudiyettu hymns and performance. “The students are carefully selected after a brief interview conducted to test their interest and acumen in the art. Eight of our students also receive scholarships from the State Folklore Academy,” he says.

The study is not a fulltime activity. However, those who cannot put up with the regimen drop out. Everything associated with Mudiyettu, starting from the Kalamezhuthu (pictorial drawing of Kali) that precedes the performance, used to be done by Kurups in olden times. “As per tradition, before Kalamezhuthu at a shrine, its priest would light a lamp at the Kalamezhuthu site using fire from the sanctum sanctorum. After the Kalam is ritualistically erased, fire from that lamp would light up the aniyara (make-up room) nearby. As if in a torch relay, the same fire would be used to illuminate the lamp with four wicks at the site of the dance drama. Even now, we use a lamp with four wicks for the performance. It signifies that the expanse till the horizon in all four directions forms the stage for the performance,” says Nanu Kurup, who in the past five decades, has donned Kali's headgear in over 1,000 performances.

There's no rehearsal or preparation to play Kali. It is a natural progression from Lord Shiva, Narada, demons Danavan and Darikan to Kali. The family has produced illustrious Kali performers, known among people as ‘Kali Kurups'. Heirs to this legacy in the younger generation are Nanu Kurup's sons Ramesh and Suresh.

A total of 16 persons— including percussionists, Kalamezhuthu artists, vocalists— are required for a complete Mudiyettu performance. A full performance fetches the team rather low remunerations, despite all their legwork, the tools used and the elegance of a performance.

When Sibi Malayil and Lohita Das joined hands for their first movie together, Thaniyavarthanam (in 1987), they chose Nanu Kurup to perform Mudiyettu , which was used as a powerful instrument of narration in the movie. “They met me at Chirangara temple and narrated the story. The shooting, full with every ritual including the Kalamezhuthu and pattu took place at a paliyam (palace) in Mannarkkad. That was the beginning of a two-decade-long friendship with Lohita Das. We last met about a year before his death. He was sincere as a friend and a perceptive storyteller,” says Nanu Kurup.