The young boy was busy leading the cows to graze in his village Vellinezhi in Kerala when a neighbour chased him off on an errand to buy betel leaves. By the time the boy returned, the animals had chewed up the standing paddy crop. He was caned by his elder brother for his irresponsible behaviour. The wailing 13-year-old was soon consoled and, in strange consolation, was allowed to learn Kathakali.
Thus, in 1951, Kalamandalam got a new student — Puthanveettil Kuttan, who trained in the art form for the next seven years. His main guide was Ramankutty Nair (1925-2013), the very same person who had sent him on the errand that got him punished.
A bunch of talented contemporaries also enriched Kuttan’s knowledge at the eminent institution in Cheruthuruthy, 30 km south of his village. Both Ramankutty Nair and Kuttan’s initial teacher, Padmanabhan Nair, hailed from the same verdant Palakkad village. The course moulded Kuttan into a promising proponent of the body-centric Kalluvazhi style of the dance-theatre.
Yet, for the next six years, his career as a a freelance artiste remained uncertain. A break came in 1964, when nascent Kalanilayam at Irinjalakuda recruited him. There, over three-and-a-half decades, he emerged as a guru. His exquisite training skills put him in the league of Padmanabhan Nair (1928-2007), who was more a teacher-theorist than performer.
Kalamandalam Kuttan died on January 13, a month short of turning 84. The end came a quarter century after he retired as the principal of the Kathakali school where he taught for 34 years. Says his long-time colleague Kalanilayam Raghavan, “Kuttan was completely absorbed in training.”
Consistency in concepts
Kalanilayam Mukundakumar, who teaches at Santiniketan in Bengal, talks in awe about the consistency in Kuttan’s choreographic concepts. “He was definite about the points of beginning and ending each mudra. He would be unsparing if you erred. When we moved into higher classes, the training focused on the roles we excelled in.”
Septuagenarian Desamangalam Savithri, who was Kuttan’s first female student, recalls how the guru’s intense involvement enabled her debut in the invocatory Purappad at the age of eight.
“Those days,” reminisces maestro Sadanam Krishnankutty, “Kuttan was integral to the Lavanasuravadham Kathakali that featured Ramankutty Nair as Hanuman. Kuttan would be Lava with K.G. Vasu, his junior, playing Kusha. He used to sing well too.”
Appukuttan Swaralayam, an organiser of cultural festivals, shares his experiences on anchoring Kuttan’s lec-dems at SPIC MACAY in the 2000s. “Several of his acts, marked by intense stylisation, would get encore requests from students.”
It is said that nobody portrayed Sati’s father as well as Kuttan, which earned him the portmanteau of ‘DakshanKuttan’. It’s another matter that he always loved teaching that part more than enacting it.
The writer is a keen follower of Kerala’s performing arts.