When your multi-faceted subject is an ace Kathakali artiste and asan (guru), percussionist, Carnatic musician, composer, sculptor, painter, playwright, lyricist and poet, all rolled into one, you wonder where to begin. Meet Sadanam Harikumar, Principal of the Gandhi Seva Sadanam Kathakali and Classic Arts Academy at Palakkad.
Born in Perur, Kerala, in 1958, Harikumar’s childhood and adolescence were shaped by the iconic stature of his father, K. Kumaran, freedom fighter, Gandhian and founder-secretary of the Sadanam Academy established in 1953. “My Kathakali training began at age eight in Sadanam. It was a golden era peopled by legends such as Kizhpadam Kumaran Nair, Sadanam Balakrishnan and Sadanam Raman Kutty who were my asans” reminisces Harikumar. “Sensing that my heart was in the arts, my father encouraged me, though my mother had reservations on account of many Kathakali artistes of the day lapsing into alcoholism and an undisciplined lifestyle. As she wanted me to pursue academics, I obtained my B.Sc and B.Ed, simultaneously completing my Diploma in Kathakali and a Masters in Malayalam Language and Literature. A Central government scholarship helped me pursue advanced Kathakali training from Kizhpadam asan. I also learnt Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattom from Kalamandalam Leela amma and Carnatic vocal from vidwan C.S. Krishna Iyer who instilled in me a keen appreciation of the subtleties.
“Joining Sadanam as a teacher, I found that my father’s conservative approach did not gel with my enthusiastic, innovative ideas regarding costume, lighting, et al. The generation gap, maybe? So, in 1979, I left to join the Vishwa Bharati University, Santiniketan, West Bengal, as Professor for Kathakali. While working there, I underwent a life-changing experience in 1993. Struck down by severe cerebral malaria, I suffered renal failure. My pulse stopped and I was given up for dead. The formal procedure wherein the certifying doctors had to punch my chest, ended up saving my life! I began breathing, but lay in a coma for two days. Recovery, that took more than a year, was painfully slow, as my sight and memory were affected. While singing, I could remember sangathis but would forget the next line of sahitya.”
The adjective versatile takes a whole new spin when you view Harikumar’s works of art. What prompted his interest in painting and sculpture? “The unique atmosphere at Santiniketan. It encouraged the spirit of enquiry, constantly urging me to explore new frontiers. When I sculpt or paint, the solitary activity brings peace; it doesn’t need an audience or a supporting team, unlike a stage performance.”
How does music influence his visual art? “Sruthi is vibration of sound. Colour is vibration of light. Emotions are vibrations of the bloodstream. When vibration (spandha) is linked to santha rasa, it brings joy. Acrylics and oils are my preferred media. Real and surreal landscapes and life forms are my subjects, drawn from Nature.”
“If music is the most abstract art form, sculpture is the most concrete. While music is the movement of the medium, sculpture is the blocked movement of the medium. I salute the craftsman who sculpted the first Nataraja. The way it slices and defines space reveals his in-depth knowledge of Natya. My sculpture of Siva holding a Kathakali posture and mudra is inevitably influenced by my sensibilities as a natya practitioner. Other works include terracotta portrait busts of Kathakali legends such as Pattikamthodi Ravunni Menon, Kizhpadam Kumaran Nair, Vazhenkata Kunju Nair and most recently the maddalam maestro (Kathakali and panchavadyam) Tiruvilwamala Venkichan Swamy.”
Harikumar’s skills as composer have surfaced in his authorship and choreography of 17 new attakathas (Kathakali plays) that narrate lesser-known stories from the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, such as ‘Hidumbi,’ ‘Chitrangada’ and ‘Maagadheyam.’ ‘Karnaparityagam’ takes us through three stages in Kunti’s life, as a girl, lover and mother. ‘Kumarasambhavam’ was staged at the Kalidas Samaroh, Ujjain.
Another milestone was the premiere of ‘Namami Sankaram’ on Adi Sankara at the Vivekananda Centre, Kanniyakumari. “In some plays I have danced, in others, I have provided the vocals and also designed new costumes for characters such as Vavar in ‘Manikanta Charitram,’ Drona in ‘Abhimanyu’ and Garuda in ‘Kaadraveyam,’” says the asan. “In the latter, the customary aharya includes a heavy wooden beak, cumbersome for the artiste. I changed it to a light beak incorporated in the chutti itself. An interesting point is that the society of an earlier century accepted the friendship of Ayyappa and Vavar, transcending religious divides; a message particularly relevant to today’s world riven by intolerance. We have much to learn from such stories. In recent years, the audience response to such ventures has been heartening.”
His love for literature had Harikumar scripting ‘Charudattam,’ an adaptation of Shakespeare’s ‘Julius Caesar.’ In a genre that stoutly resists change, how do purists react? “Change is inevitable in any dynamic art form. Innovation must be viewed in a case-specific context. My reply to critics is that idli and dosa are considered as food; but food does not imply idli or dosa alone! Likewise, while ‘Nalacharitham’ and ‘Kalyanasowgandhikam’ symbolise Kathakali, this genre is not limited by them. Assimilation and accommodation are two important aspects of artistic growth. I diversify the possibilities of Kathakali, while duly observing grammar and vocabulary. ”
An interface with Harikumar asan serves to remind you of the interconnectedness of the arts, their complementary and contrasting synergies.
Add to that his profound thankfulness for his second lease of life, where he considers each day a precious gift and a loan from God, that he must return ‘with interest,’ and you have a philosophy that inspires.