Hero, anti-hero, jester — Kalamandalam Vasu Pisharody made every role his own

Kalamandalam Vasu Pisharody  

Amid recollecting his glorious past, Kalamandalam Vasu Pisharody often breaks into guffaws that belie his inner gloom. At 76, the actor-dancer has been largely off the Kathakali circuit for one-and-a-half decades due to an unexpected slide in health. It began in 2005 when Pisharody was at the peak of his career. Knee pain began to challenge him on stage. Both legs became increasingly unwieldy, even though the master chose not to miss any assignments that summer. After all, the impending monsoon was the traditional rejuvenation season.

Treatments taken since haven’t proven too successful. Yet his passion for Kathakali prompts Pisharody to make occasional appearances on stage.When invitations come for roles that demand less exertion, the exponent travels from his home in the heritage-rich Kongad in Palakkad district. So Pisharody has mostly been in hibernation, a far cry from his heyday. An all-rounder, he used to present a whole range of protagonists: hero, anti-hero, jester. From completely stylised to part-natural. Mostly male; rarely female too.

He used his physique to ground his dance in the classicism of Kathakali, but never at the cost of facial expression. This always lent finesse to his method acting, which is the essence of the form’s mainstream Kalluvazhi school with moorings in south Malabar.

Overarching influence

“I owe my style to Vazhenkada Kunchu Nair,” says Pisharody, explaining his guru’s life-long interest in nuanced character portrayals. “Once the pupil got the basics right, he would take us into the mental labyrinths of the dramatis personae. That way, the training is akin to Koodiyattam.”

Kunchu Nair (1909-1981) was fascinated by the intellectuality of this ancient Sanskrit theatre form, a feeling shared by his prime disciple Pisharody. The duo’s essay of Nalacharitam, which shows how the king weathers repeated tides to regain the peace of his younger times. Easily the most popular Kathakali play, the 18th-century poem requires four nights for an unabridged show and provides huge scope for not just extempore acting, but background vocals, percussion, costume and make up.

Kalamandalam Vasu Pisharody

Kalamandalam Vasu Pisharody  

Playing Nala carries the risk of the actor opting for an explosive, turbulent portrayal, much to the harm of Kathakali’s sobriety. “Pisharody seldom falls prey to this,” points out aficionado K.B. Raj Anand. “He could unearth the intricacies of the story and its manifold layers, while never slipping into melodrama.”

He even brought out Ranga Naishadham, a performance manual on Nalacharitam.

Pisharody’s restrained histrionics vis-à-vis those of stalwart Kalamandalam Gopi made for a professional rivalry that graced Kathakali with its complementariness for nearly four decades . “I must say he’s more contemplative than most of us, distancing from quick applause,” says Gopi, 83. “What’s more, he is an ideal teacher too. It’s a rare mix.”

K.K. Prasanth, a pupil at Kalamandalam where Pisharody taught for two decades from 1979, agrees. “If you are earnest, the master was doubly keen,” he says. “The pedagogy is different. On a Monday if he chose a Kathakali story, you would be trained in its sequences the whole week. This guaranteed continuity and, hence, indelible lessons in choreography.”

Vivid vignettes

Pisharody, who also trained under titans Ramankutty Nair and Padmanabhan Nair at Kalamandalam, retired from his alma mater as vice-principal in 1999. His Kongad home has remained open for advanced students, one of whom is Haripriya Nambudiri. “Staying at his house over weekends since 2004, the master showed me the vitality of eyes in expressions,” says Haripriya. “Two years later, I could perform a character as dense as Urvashi. He boosted my efforts to challenge the general notion that women are misfits in Kathakali.”

Linguist-teacher Pazhoor Damodaran points to Pisharody’s penchant for improvising on slokas. “The depiction may not be spectacular, but the core idea will leave us ruminating,” he says.

Pisharody smiles when asked about such remarks or the awards he has received. But ask him about those busy days when he started lessons under his first guru Balakrishnan Nair and the dancer turns eloquent. Sitting in his armchair, he talks about an eventful career spanning six decades, punctated by loud and resonant laughter.

The writer is a keen follower of Kerala’s traditional performing arts.

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Printable version | Apr 22, 2021 2:06:05 AM |

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