It was in the early 1980s. A small group of devotees had assembled at the courtyard of a temple in the remote rural area of Valluvanad soon after the deeparadhana . Within a few minutes, a young artiste appeared before them. He recited the Mangala slokam, Kumbheendranpole Vakthram , along with the background vocalist and straightaway proceeded to a dramatic excerpt from the renowned play Kalyanasaugandhikam , the first composition of Kunchan Nambiar. As he began unfolding the encounter between Bhima and Hanuman at the celestial garden of Kadaleevanam, through dance, music and mime, the size of the audience grew. He mesmerised them with his act. The artiste was none other than Kesava Geethanandan, then a senior student at Kerala Kalamandalam. In less than a decade, Kalamandalam Geethanandan established himself as a sought-after artiste in the field of Thullal. His unexpected demise, that too on stage in full make-up and costume, cast a pall of gloom on the scene.
Family of artistes
Like most of those associated with traditional arts, Geethanandan had a poverty-stricken childhood. The temple-caste family he belonged to was deeply involved in performing arts, especially Thullal. Geethanandan, hence, had an early exposure to the art form. Yet his father, himself a noted Thullal artiste, was against his son taking up this solo dance-theatre-narrative as a means of livelihood. But destiny willed otherwise.
Geethanandan enrolled as a student of Kerala Kalamandalam and received intense tutelage under Kalamandalam Divakaran Nair in the 1970s. With his flair for music, dance, and acting, the boy could grasp the nuances of all the plays he learnt over a period of four years and subsequently for two years with a scholarship from the Ministry of Culture, Government of India.
Geethanandan’s tall frame and light coloured eyes did not conform to the conventional image of a Thullal artiste. But his appearance on stage and crystal clear articulation could instantly steal the hearts of even diehard conservatives. Geethanandan was fortunate to be appointed as instructor of Thullal at his alma mater soon after completion of his studies with distinction. By then he had risen to stardom in the field, a distinction enjoyed exclusively by his distant predecessor — Malabar Raman Nair during his life time. Geethanandan was quick to realise that the space for Thullal had started shrinking day by day in a fast changing cultural climate. He thus decided to redraw the contours of Thullal by effecting refinements in the fourfold concept of its acting — angika, vachika, aharya and satwika . The expansive canvas of Kathakali was an enduring inspiration for Geethanandan.
Gestures and range of expressions of Thullal grew as he ventured to introduce a broad form of padarthabhinaya (hand-gesture and expression for each and every word in the verse) in its otherwise skeletal framework. Characters became vivid and emotionally vibrant as Geethanandan improvised the imports of many a word in each line. In addition to Saugandhikam, Santhanagopalam, Kiratham and Garudagarvabhangam gained immense appreciation as and when he expounded those on stage. With Kalamandalam Gopinatha Prabha as vocalist, the padams of Thullal got rendered emotively in various ragas that beautifully blended with the stylistics of Geethanandan.
As a dancer, Geethanandan had an inclination towards thishra, mishra and khanda natas prompted by the text and the contexts. His each and every movement and expression was embedded to rhythm and hence the impact he created on the spectators was simply astounding. Infectious was his energy on stage and initiated viewers fuelled his passion and involvement. Geethanandan’s fondness for lokadharmi (realism) and over dramatisation did attract criticism from the cognoscenti over the years. He was not affected by that as he had tremendous faith in his admirers spread over India and in the Gulf countries.
Thullal is a demanding art form as it insists on the performer singing, dancing and acting simultaneously. Rarely do all these qualities converge in an artiste. Geethanandan was one in whom diverse faculties synthesised in ample measure. With an unfailing musical sensibility, he composed a Thullalpada kutcheri almost akin to that of a Kathakali padakutcheri . From an insignificant ritual held around noon as part of temple festivals, Geethanandan successfully got Thullal shifted to prime-time in all the temples and cultural venues he was invited to perform. Geethanandan also acted in a few films.
Sarcasm and satire form the soul of Thullal literature. Unfortunately, most of the performers of the day are not endowed with these assets. Geethanandan was exceptional as he had an innate sense of humour and could improvise in accordance with the context he was performing on stage. This, in fact, could illuminate numerous characters such as Hanuman, Garuda, Krishna, Kiratha and so on. Off stage too, Geethanandan was witty and his humorous comments about his fellow artists and others carried more than an iota of truth.
Being an incredibly gifted artiste, Geethanandan always longed to be visible on and off stage. He wanted the public at large to look at him and listen to him as an artiste whose constituency was seldom confined to Thullal.
In the cultural history of Kerala, Geethanandan will long be remembered as a path-breaker who pushed the boundaries of Thullal to enhance its stature and popularity in a society that was slowly getting disconnected from its roots.
Thullal, a semi-stylised solo dance-theatre tradition, came into being in the 18h century thanks to the innovative endeavour of poet and humorist Kalakkath Kunchan Nambiar. Thullal underwent tremendous transformations through the centuries. Once it was added to the curriculum of Kerala Kalamandalam in the early 1940s, the kalari training of Thullal got systematised. Kalamandalam School of Thullal adheres to the refined style established by the genius, Malabar Raman Nair. In the latter half of the last century, Geethanandan took up the task of promoting and popularising the ‘tradition’ by giving it a distinctively individualistic style.
Born on April 15, 1961 at Kothachira village of Palakkad district as the son of Kesavan Nambeesan and Savithri Brahmani Amma, Geethanandan inherited his talent for Thullal from his father, a well-known artiste in Valluvanad. Geethanandan began learning the art from his father. He had his debut at the age of nine. In 1974, he joined Kerala Kalamandalam for a diploma course in Thullal.
Geethanandan underwent rigorous training in Thullal under Guru Kalamandalalm Divakaran Nair. As a member of the Kalamandalam Thullal Troupe and individually Geethanandan got countless opportunities to perform both Ottan Thullal and Seethankan Thullal.
Geethanandan was appointed instructor of Thullal in 1984. He became the leading Thullal artiste of the Kalamandalam troupe which toured far and near for performances every year. Simultaneously he started grooming skilled students in Thullal for the district- and State-level school youth festivals.
Geethanandan also began conducting programmes in the Gulf countries with a sizeable Malayali population. Wherever he travelled, he not only did Thullal recitals but also trained students. He has more than 850 disciples. Geethanandan was the major attraction of the Thullal troupe of Kalamandalam that toured France nearly two decades ago.
After 33 years of service as artiste-teacher at Kalamandalam, he retired on March 31, 2017.
Geethanandan was honoured with Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Academy Award (2002), Kunchan Nambiar Thullal Puraskaram (2003), Kerala Kalamandalam Award (2009) and Kunchan Award, Government of Kerala (2002).