Chavara Parukutty, the renowned Kathakali artiste who passed away on February 7, will be remembered for her unique style of presentation of all major female roles. Her acting was resplendent with context-sensitive, imaginative improvisations that strictly adhered to the grammar of Kathakali. She carved out for herself a significant place in Kathakali.
Irrespective of whether she was acting with a peer or a titan, Parukutty succeeded in obtaining the unswerving attention of the rasikas throughout her recital. Her performance could be scintillating or emotion-charged in tune with the context of the play.
Devayani was avowedly her masterpiece. She spares no trick to win the love of handsome Kacha, who has come from the heavens to study under her father. Every expression and movement on her part, right from her first sight of him, would brim with enthusiasm that seemed contagious so as to enchant anyone, including her father’s new pupil. At the climax, subsequent to cursing each other, when everything appeared to freeze into a dreadful silence filled with anxiety and expectation, for a moment, Parukutty’s face would showcase aversion alternating with affection towards Kacha. Occasionally, she used to essay the role of Kacha too, when her co-actor was confident of enacting Devayani.
Parukutty’s presentation of Kunti in Karnasapatham earned her great appreciation. Her entry itself would bring to the fore the context, namely, the Pandavas’ mother striving to ensure privacy while earnestly attempting to win for her children Karna’s favour, just before the battle of Kurukshetra.
When the episode of Nizhalkuthu was slated for an event, the organisers’ first choice used to be Parukutty for presenting the role of Malayathi, the unique character who appears to be the embodiment of affection for her husband and son. Later, she transforms herself into an ogress, tearing her child into two pieces as a befitting punishment for her sorcerer-husband, who preferred to save his own life to the lives of the Pandavas.
Once, the legendary Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair praised Parukutty’s Sita’s heart-rending and evocative response to Hanuman’s famous query ‘sukhamo devi!’ (Oh Goddess, are you happy here?) in Lavanasuravadham. She just exclaimed in response: ‘Happiness! Have I ever experienced it!’
Like most girls aspiring to act on the Kathakali stage, Parukutty too essayed the role of Lalita in her maiden performance. Lalita is the charming form of Poothana, who is sent by Kamsa to kill infant Krishna. Her first act was followed by a flood of invitations for presenting the same role. But soon she moved on to all other major roles of female characters in Kathakali, including Damayanti, Chithralekha, Urvasi, Panchali, Sairandhri and Mannathi, making each presentation an unforgettable experience for her viewers.
On being conferred Kerala Kalamandalam’s prestigious award for excellence in acting, Parukutty pointed out that Kathakali has not been a woman-friendly domain. To achieve due recognition, she had to struggle much harder than most male actors who were her peers. Showcasing her best on all types of venues, mostly at programmes held in the night, often far away from home and being the only female member of a troupe raised a whole lot of challenges. Co-artistes and organisers who cared for her minimum requirements as a woman were rare. And any insistence on any special facilities would result in her being substituted by male actors in subsequent performances.
Being the youngest among the three children of Sankaran Achari, an indigent goldsmith in Chavara, Parukutty had to struggle through life. Her first preceptor, Muthupilakkattu Gopala Panicker, trained her and her debut was at the age of 14 at the Devi temple in Kotankulangara. She received training under Poruvazhi Gopala Pillai also. But it was her training under the tutelage of maestro Mankulam Vishnu Namboodiri that gave her the confidence to handle any prominent female role in Kathakali. Parukutty was immensely benefited by her Guru’s holistic instructions, which included all aspects of acting and the salient features of various epic characters in Kathakali.
Never did Parukutty depend on a patron. Even when financial assistance was offered, her customary response was that she would take it when she needed it. She brought up her only daughter, Dhanya, as a competent danseuse trained in Kalamandalam and provided all assistance to her to establish a school of dance in Chavara. Till she was hospitalised, the veteran used to take an active role in the functioning of that institution.
Chavara Parukutty will have a special place in the history of Kathakali as an artiste whose entire life proved that women can make an effective and indelible mark even in the mostly male-dominated domain, and even while safeguarding and enhancing the aesthetic beauty of that unparalleled form of art that she practised for about seven decades.