How Kathakali artiste Ettumanoor P Kannan is turning theatre egalitarian

Ettumanoor P Kannan  

For the average Kathakali actor, going two years without a performance might be a worrying track record. Ettumanoor P Kannan is not your average Kathakali actor, though. He is much more — an academic, arts administrator, yoga scholar and trainer in abhinaya.

The 52-year-old has worn many hats in his long artistic career. As an educator, he has helped shape a new curriculum for post-graduate students of Kathakali. He has dabbled in inter-cultural and post-modern theatre in India and abroad. He holds abhinaya training sessions for dancers and theatre practitioners. He uses yoga and spirituality to train the young in mind awareness management workshops.

FridayReview caught up with Kannan recently. Excerpts from an interview...

Essentially, you are a Kathakali actor. Yet you are currently the director of Sangeet Natak Akademi’s Kutiyattam Kendra...

I may be an outsider but I am no stranger to Koodiyattam. I have been trained by the great Koodiyattam guru Mani Madhava Chakyar. There may have been some apprehension in the beginning since my background is Kathakali. But I believe I have won the trust of the Koodiyattam community.

When I took over this post in 2016-end, I launched several activities to promote Koodiyattam. One was creating a directory of artistes. With that database, we try to route programmes to as many artistes as possible. Then I organised a three-day conclave of all Koodiyattam artistes and families to facilitate a conversation among them. We also launched an annual five-day Natyadharmi festival, where most of the artistes get a chance to perform.

I also wanted to influence the training methodology and syllabus. Students need motivation. They should be made to perform earlier. I visit different Koodiyattam schools and talk to them. Be it Kathakali or Koodiyattam, we need to change with the times and evolve modern teaching methodologies. This is what I tried to do in 2007 in Kerala Kalamandalam when they were starting the post-graduate course. The old kalari system alone was not enough. I faced resistance from the senior teachers as they thought I was tampering with a well-established tradition. But later, many of the sceptics came around to my view. I returned there in 2013 as campus director when we offered MA in 14 subjects.

Ettumanoor P Kannan as Bheeshma

Ettumanoor P Kannan as Bheeshma   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Coming back to Kathakali, you performed at Ettumanoor recently. That was after a gap of two years. Isn’t that unusual?

After my pre-degree, I had doubts about continuing in Kathakali. Then in 2007, when I realised I wasn’t getting enough time to focus on my PhD thesis, I went off to Auroville (in Puducherry) for a year. Then these last two years, I have been busy with the Kutiyattam Centre.

All this has to do with my growth as an artiste and as an individual. I started Kathakali training at the age of 10 when my first guru, the late Kalanilayam Mohankumar, set up a kalari at Ettumanoor. My father wasn’t very keen; he warned me that my Kathakali would stop the day I slipped below third rank in school. By the time I was in eighth standard, I had become a professional with around 80 programmes a year, initially travelling with my guru and, later, on my own. I won at youth festivals and attended summer camps at Kerala Kalamandalam.

After my pre-degree, I enrolled for BA in Malayalam. The restless youth in me started thinking, started questioning and rebelling... I was at the crossroads: Kathakali or an ascetic life. I was inclined to take the spiritual philosophic route.

Ettumanoor P Kannan as Bahukan

Ettumanoor P Kannan as Bahukan   | Photo Credit: Achuthan TK

Why were you disillusioned with Kathakali?

I was busy as a performer but my mind wasn’t in it. I suppose there was a quest to find a deeper meaning after being influenced by my reading. One day, a Kathakali patron told me to meet the late Mani Madhava Chakyar. This was just 15 or 18 months before Chakyar Asaan died. He was frail and could only sit leaning on his bed. That year I spent with him was a turning point. He demolished my ideas about classical art and made me realise that this artform is compatible with the philosophies I have been reading about. Kathakali, which until then was a performing art to me, became a philosophy.

Every day, Chakyar Asaan would teach me eye exercises. During the day, he would recite Sanskrit slokas and explain them to me. He would make me write them down. He would link them to the mudras and style of Kathakali. I had learnt Sanskrit as a child and that helped. Chakyar Asaan was an expert not just in Koodiyattam but in astrology and Ayurveda as well. He taught me nadi sasthram since it impacted abhinaya.

In the works
  • The first priority will be Kathakali performances. I am already busy in this area this season. I intend to step back from arts management since it consumes a lot of time.
  • I will also work on cross-cultural platforms. I have done international Kathakali workshops for several years. The Asia-Pacific Performance Exchange that I attended in 2000 exposed me to an entirely new group of artistes. That made me think of using Natyadharmi methodology to present a non-Indian epic. I worked with Peking opera artiste Peng Jingquan and Taiwanese-American actress Cheng-Chieh Yu to present Oedipus. When I was working in UCLA, I got a chance to work with the theatre group Dog & Pony Show in Pittsburg in 2001. An adaptation of Macbeth that we did was selected as one of the 10 best plays of the year. The next year in Pittsburg, I performed Tagore’s Dialogue Between Karna and Kunti in collaboration with Odissi dancer Sreyashi Dey. The possibilities to use the Indian system of abhinaya in post-modern theatre are endless. Then I conduct abhinaya workshops for dance and theatre groups in India and abroad. What they do might be Kuchipudi or Kathak or modern theatre, but underlying that is our ancient technique of abhinaya — breath control, focusing the mind and creating awareness. There is a step-by-step process to get there. The course will awaken certain faculties in them that they were not aware of before. After all, that is what yoga is all about — tap the potential of the human body and intellect to the maximum.

So you decided that it is Kathakali for you. Did any others influence you?

The year I spent with Chakyar Asaan led me to realise my inadequacies. I approached Kalamandalam Vasu Pisharody and joined Kalamandalam as a special student to train with senior students. Four years of training with Vasu Asaan made me what I am today. This was around the time I interacted with Kathakali activists and aesthetes such as K B Rajanand and Dr T S Madhavankutty. I could sound off their ideas on Vasu Asaan. I attended workshops of Kunju Nair Trust and interacted with a bunch of young actors. It was an enriching period for me.

While conducting Kathakali appreciation courses, I met the late academic-turned-actor Narendra Prasad. He introduced me to European theatre theorists such as (Jerzy) Grotowski, (Konstantin) Stanislavski and (Bertolt) Brecht, whose works helped me connect theatre and Kathakali.

How Kathakali artiste Ettumanoor P Kannan is turning theatre egalitarian

You were one of the first to bring cholliyattam, or Kathakali without costumes, onto the performance arena. What was the idea behind it?

I realised that those new to Kathakali will better understand it without the costumes. I had worked with the theatre department of the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), from 2000 for five years, spending four months there every year. On weekends, I used to do cholliyattam of certain set pieces with the help of some local drummers. The response was overwhelming. Again, when I was teaching at the National School of Drama, New Delhi, from 2007 for five years, I performed cholliyattam on weekends. It was a revelation for North Indian students there. Some of them told me that they had watched Kathakali for years but could never penetrate it beyond the costumes. Kathakali had seemed unapproachable till they watched my cholliyattam. That allowed them to watch the body of Kathakali at work. I had used this same technique in some inter-cultural plays effectively. I intend to revive this. But I need to think more about it. It should not be the typical cholliyattam of Kathakali but specially choreographed pieces.

Our code of editorial values

Related Topics
This article is closed for comments.
Please Email the Editor

Printable version | Jun 12, 2021 11:22:35 PM |

Next Story