A performer has an obligation towards his art form, says Kathakali artiste Kalamandalam Balasubramanian

Kalamandalam Balasubramanian at a Kathakali cholliyattam   | Photo Credit: Achuthan TK

When a group of Kathakali enthusiasts under the banner of Kalivilakku in Karunagappally in Kollam district decided to organise an ambitious eight-day Cholliyattam, or performance without costumes, they had only one artiste in mind — the 64-year-old Kalamandalam Balasubramanian. Cholliyattam of the highly-structured segments that are taught in the kalari is physically demanding since it features very slow kalasams or pure dance elements and brisk descriptive segments.

Balasubramanian, celebrating the 50th year of his performance career, is gifted with a body that suits the language of Kathakali. But it is not merely that. By sheer practice and hardwork, he has succeeded in distilling and embedding that language into his body.

Kalamandalam Balasubramanian in a pacha character

Kalamandalam Balasubramanian in a pacha character   | Photo Credit: Pradeep Thennatt

Says his guru Kalamandalam Gopi: “Cholliyattam is a tough exercise. Balasubramanian’s commitment to undertake an eight-day Cholliyattam shows his sincerity and self-confidence. I respect him for this. I also admire his commitment to this project that is going to be a big help for students and connoisseurs alike.”

In an interview with Friday Review, Balasubramanian talks about his tryst with the art form, the training involved and the future. Excerpts:

Fifty years on the stage. How did it start?

I come from a big family and I have seven siblings. Like any boy in a Kerala village, I used to watch Kathakali but I wouldn’t say I had a passion for it. My father loved arts and decided that one of us should take up Kathakali. That’s how I ended up in Kerala Kalamandalam in 1968 at the age of 13, having passed out of class seven. I stayed on in Kalamandalam till my post-graduation and began teaching there from 1979. I retired as principal in 2011. Now I am a dean at Kalamandalam University and also teach post-graduate students there.

You are now a busy performer and a sought-after guru. What do you think is the reason for your success?

God’s grace, gurus and good fortune. If I have achieved anything in life, the full credit goes to my gurus, the late Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair Asaan and Gopi Asaan [Kalamandalam Gopi]. I was lucky to get into Gopi Asaan’s kalari in my first year. It wasn’t easy. But I would say that anyone who is lucky enough to enter Gopi Asaan’s kalari and perseveres through the severe training sessions and emerges out of it will have skills to become a proficient Kathakali artiste. The rest depends on your approach to the art form. There is a padam in Kalakeyavadham, ‘Salajjoham’, which, in a nutshell, means “only fools gloat on hearing lavish praise”. Ramankutty Asaan used to tell us to remember this always.

How was your kalari?

It wasn’t easy. After two months there, I didn’t want anything more to do with Kathakali. I came home one weekend and told my father I was not going back. He persuaded me to continue since I had already left formal schooling. Days were long, starting at 4 or 4.30 in the morning with the uzhichil (body massage) and physical exercises, ending only after the night classes. There was no formal schooling as there is now and the entire day was devoted to Kathakali. The kalari regimen was very strict and repetitive. For example, one had to do a chuzhippu (a body movement) repeatedly for 90 minutes. Or a small padam of a minor character, such as ‘Aravinadamizhimare’ in Utharaswayamvaram, will be taught for a week, though all it takes is one day to learn it. What was being done in kalari was drilling in the movements that characterise Kathakali so that it becomes your muscle memory. This is what equips an actor to perform any role any day at a moment’s notice without any rehearsals.

Kalamandalam Balasubramanian at a Kathakali cholliyattam

Kalamandalam Balasubramanian at a Kathakali cholliyattam   | Photo Credit: Achuthan TK

There is a view that the uzhichil in Kathakali is unscientific and risky. What is your view on this?

I don’t know how ‘scientific’ it is. But if at this age of 64 I am able to perform the most rigorous roles and the brisk kalasams, it is because my teachers moulded my body through massage. Or else my limbs would ache and thighs would shiver when I take a stance or perform for a long time on stage. I believe uzhichil is essential for male Kathakali students. It can be modified or made less rigorous, but it is essential.

How’s the teaching process in a kalari today?

During my training days, the whole day was dedicated to Kathakali. There was more time for Cholliyattam. But today, Kalamandalam is a university and formal education is offered. There is also more emphasis on theory. This is a good thing. Many graduates may not excel on the performance arena. They will need degrees and certificates to qualify as teachers or trainers in other universities and institutes. But the new regimen should try to find more time for practicals. For example, parts of a story that are rarely performed on stage were practised in my kalari. Late Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair Asaan emphasised on teaching these segments. “The administrators or the audience don’t need to preserve this, but we artistes need it,” he used to say.

Fact file
  • Born on May 26, 1955, Kalamandalam Balasubramanian did a six-year diploma in Kathakali vesham from Kerala Kalamandalam followed by two-year post-diploma and two-year senior scholarship.
  • He retired as principal of Kerala Kalamandalam, in 2011 and was appointed Dean at the institution this year
  • He has written two books: Eye and Flower and Markendeya Charitam (unpublished)
  • Major awards include David Bolland Gold Medal (1974), Painkulam Ramachakyar Puraskar (2011), Kerala Kalamandalam Award (2013) and Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Academy award (2019)

How will you compare Cholliyattam to stage performance?

Cholliyattam is tougher and more demanding than a stage presentation. One reason is that the lift that aaharya, or costume, gives you is absent. More importantly, a stage performance is less demanding because all the physically strenuous kalasams that you take in a kalari are not done on stage. In fact, it is not desirable. For example, while presenting a heroic pacha character, the nritha or kalasam element should be softened down to reflect on the emotional state of the character. Or else the character becomes a caricature. In Cholliyattam, the focus is on the nritha and the bhava is secondary. But these nuances are not taught in kalari; you acquire them by observing and performing. That’s why a Kathakali actor is considered competent to handle mature roles only after he crosses 40 or so.

Only for a minor character, or kuttitharam in Kathakali parlance, is a performance as physically demanding and as detailed as in Cholliyattam. But what’s important is that a complete kalari regimen alone will empower the artiste to adjust to the demands of performance arena. If there are imperfections in Cholliyattam, they get magnified on stage.

Is an artiste only a performer or does he have a larger role?

When an artiste graduates, his focus will be on stage performances, making a name for himself and earning a livelihood. That’s as it should be. But once the artiste matures, he must start thinking of preserving this art form for the future. He has a commitment to his students. He and organisers must ensure that this glorious theatre thrives and gathers more followers. I consider this an obligation, a responsibility entrusted to us by our gurus.

Any memorable incidents?

When I look back, I believe I have been lucky and blessed. One of the most confidence-boosting incidents is from 1984. It was the late Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair’s 70th birthday celebrations. The first story was Rugminiswayamvaram with Krishnan Nair Asaan as Brahmanan. Though there were many prominent senior artistes present, I was picked for the role of Krishna.

What are your thoughts on the future of Kathakali?

We have a good crop of young artistes. They are serious, well-read and passionate. They are also aware of other art forms. They are articulate and capable of lecturing in universities and institutes. Today, there are more opportunities, more performances. I believe Kathakali and the Kalluvazhi style are in safe hands. But more needs to be done to attract talent. Prospective students of Kalamandalam and other institutions should feel confident that there are job prospects out there. Apart from teaching jobs, arts administration is another area of work that should be opened up for graduates.

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2022 4:30:02 AM |

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