Chemmencheri Asan: the torchbearer of Kallatikkotan legacy

Updated - April 26, 2018 06:49 pm IST

Published - April 26, 2018 03:11 pm IST

Evergreen  Chemancheri Kunhiraman Nair (Top)Performing at his 98th birthday celebration in Kozhikode

Evergreen Chemancheri Kunhiraman Nair (Top)Performing at his 98th birthday celebration in Kozhikode

Guru Chemmencheri Kunhiraman Nair, born on June 26, 1916, is a living legend — for the general public of northern Kerala, the Kathakali aficionados across the globe and the entire artiste fraternity. It is not just because he performed an intricate form like Kathakali, undergoing the five plus hours of make-up process even after becoming a centenarian (he performed a year ago at the Kulathur Vallorakkavu temple in Kozhikode as Siva in the play ‘Kirata’; his debut performance was as Draupadi in the same play in 1932) but for the positive energy that he communicates to anyone who interacts with him. The innocent smile and the eyes that twinkle through his thick spectacles are the hallmarks of his personality.

One would find it hard to believe that this cheerful person has faced several tragedies in the first four to five decades of his life. He lost his parents as a toddler, his daughter died when she was three, and shortly after, his wife too, leaving behind a two-year-old son.

Ignoring family compulsions to remarry, Asan chose to raise the child as a single parent. “I understood what life was all about and its trials by that time,” says the master and continues after a brief pause, “many compelled me for a second marriage, but I was not mentally ready to accommodate another woman in the place of Janaki.”

The last practising (at least until recently) link of the Kallatikkotan School of Kathakali, Asan had to deal with accidents, which became a part of his life. Once, after an accident, the surgeons decided to amputate one of his fingers. “Fortune favoured me. Imagine the plight of a dancer, a Kathakali performer at that, without a finger!” he laughs.

Chemmencheri Asan, who strongly believes in fate, has no regrets. “When you live, live happily like a socially useful human being, rest is destiny,” smiles the Master, adding, “Are we going to carry anything on our final journey?”

As a 15-year old, Asan got to watch the rehearsals of a play, interest in which earned him a role in it. He overheard that a Kathakali troupe was looking for students. His uncles did not permit him, considering the gruelling routine and the painful foot massage. He left home after collecting four annas (equal to 24 paisa) from his elder sister without disclosing the purpose. “That time I had no idea about Kathakali, had not even seen a performance,” he says. He became a student of Guru Karunakara Menon (1873-1937) of the Kallatikkotan lineage at the Radhakrishna Kathakaliyogam of Meppayyur in Kozhikode.

Root of the form

A quick look at history is necessary here. The art of Ramanattam with rich folk ingredients became Kathakali (story-play) when Kottayath Thampuran (1645-1716) further improved it and wrote four plays in the same style with stories adapted from the Mahabharata, as performances of episodes from the Mahabharata could not be described as Ramanattam, the play of Rama. Vellatt Chathunni Panicker (17-18 C), who was the Kathakali trainer associated with Kottayath Tampuram, returned to Kallatikkotu village in Palakkad district and started Kathakali training and gradually this style came to be known as the Kallatikkotan, considered as the root of the form. The Kaplingatan, developed later as the southern style of the art, is a reformed offshoot of the Kallatikkotan school.

While Kallatikkotan further got transformed into Kalluvazhi tradition, then as Pattikkamthodi School and subsequently, as Kalamandalam style, etc. through the lineage and aesthetic improvements brought about by a variety of legendary acharyas, including Nalloor Unneeri Menon (1823-1881), his disciple Kuyilthodi Ittiraricha Menon (1828-1903) and Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon (1880-1948). Thespians like Ambatt Eechara Menon (1836-1908), Koranath Achuta Menon (1863-1927) and Karunakara Menon preserved the pastoral flavours of the Kallatikkotan. Thus the mantle of Karunakara Menon fell on Chemmencheri, making him the last crucial link in the pristine tradition.

In the history of Kathakali, Chemmencheri, who will turn 102 in June, is perhaps the sole artiste, who set a record by being active as a Kathakali practitioner for eight decades! His dance grooming was under Kalamandalam Madhavan, Madras Balasaraswati and Salem Rajaratnam Pillai. He had his stint with Kerala Natanam too, a dance form conceived by the late Guru Gopinath with techniques of Kathakali and Mohiniyattom. On the flip side, all these prevented him from grooming disciples as the torchbearers of the Kallatikkotan style, which now faces extinction.

Extended family

Chemmencheri Asan is the head of Kathakali Vidyalayam, founded in 1970, at Cheliya, Kozhikode. Living under the care of his nephew Shankaran and his family, he imparts part-time training.

Kalamandalam Premkumar and Kalanilayam Vasudevan, among others, assist him in the running of the Vidyalayam. The entire village is like his extended family. For the past several decades, his hobby has been to preserve the badges given to him at functions to which he was invited as chief guest or for inauguration. And these badges decorate his room.

Possibly, he is the oldest among the performing artistes of the country, may be the world over, yet quite contemporary in his outlook. Travelling around with a circus troupe has broadened his views on humanity and arts.

As a freedom fighter, he was active in the Salt Satyagraha movement.

Interestingly, in the Kathakali performances in northern Kerala, for decades, Chemmencheri almost always played the role of Krishna — his favourite. This, initially on the recommendation of none other than his mentor Karunakara Menon. “Asan’s (Karunakara Menon) support helped me make Krishna my own,” recalls Chemmencheri, who made his portrayals inimitable.

Chemmencheri Asan was conferred Padma Shri in 2016. What took the national honour so long to reach him? Asan does not think about it. He is quite humbled by the recognition at the fag end of his artistic life. That sums up the positive spirit of Chemmencheri Asan.

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