Tribute to Kathakali musician Tiruvalla Gopikuttan Nair

Tiruvalla Gopikuttan Nair (1944-2022) will be remembered for his significant contribution to Kathakali music

March 19, 2022 10:37 am | Updated 10:37 am IST

Tiruvalla Gopikuttan Nair.

Tiruvalla Gopikuttan Nair. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

All his life, Tiruvalla Gopikuttan Nair rebelled against a popular trend in Kathakali music by sticking to his aesthetic convictions and suffering their flip side. As a Kathakali vocalist , he believed that emotive lyrics should no more tread the austere Sopanam system followed in Kerala temples. He also desisted from Carnaticising renditions, seldom trying complex gamakas or vibrant brigas. Alongside, he nurtured a love for vintage film and folk songs. The result was a unique ornamentation that sounded contemporary while thriving on minimalism.

Nair, 78, passed away recently. Kathakali has lost its last protestor against the northern school of vocals that has come to define the dance-theatre’s mainstream playback in the past half-a-century. The overarching Kalamandalam-style music comes with an “indistinct pronunciation typical of the spoken Malayalam upstate”, Nair used to smirk. “Worse is their breaking of words and prolonging consonants in the name of proficiency. Too much intrusion by the chenda and maddalam spoils the percussion too.”

Tiruvalla Gopikuttan Nair during a performance.

Tiruvalla Gopikuttan Nair during a performance. | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

Nair worked at Kalamandalam for a brief period. The prestigious institution near Shoranur, 200 km north of his native place in Pathanamthitta district, employed him in 1979. Within a year, he felt scholastic requirements smothering his freelancing potential, and the vocalist quit to eventually find a fairly regular venue back at Tiruvalla, which has its sprawling Vishnu shrine with night-long Kathakali as a big-ticket offering. “However, eight years passed before Nair steadied on stage after quitting his job,” recalls aesthete P. Ravindranath. “He had to overcome sustained snubs from colleagues and organisers amid exacerbated personal issues.”

Nair’s chequered career in music was preceded by a shift within the domain. As a pre-teenager from a family with cultural lineage, he began as a Kathakali actor. Learning under a local guru, he debuted at age 10. Soon elders noticed his singing talent, and took him to vocalist Tiruvalla Chellappan Pillai — the last disciple of iconic Iravankara Neelakantan Unnithan (1885-1957). Travancore’s senior musicians Cherthala Kuttappa Kurup, Thankappa Panikkar and Thakazhi Kuttan Pillai went on to inspire Nair, who was 14 when he debuted as a Kathakali vocalist.

“Unlike the northerners, we weren’t finicky about teamwork,” regretted Nair. “Bad casting and undue compromises diluted southern Kathakali music.” Such outspokenness invited displeasure from masters, notes aficionado Evoor Mohandas. Adds researcher Sajaneev Ithithanam, “His utterances were so clear that when Nair sang over radio I used to note down the literature (for reference).”

Nair, who wrote a Kathakali story titled ‘Chakkulathamma Charitam’ (2019), won the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi’s Gurupuja, among other honours.

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

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