In the hierarchy of characters in Kathakali, negative characters or those with grey shades, chuvanna thaadi and karutha thaadi , (characters with red beard and black beard) are considered lower to Nayaka - Prathinayakas (heroes and anti-heroes). Actors specialising in such roles are not required to be perfectly disciplined either in angika (hand-gestures, body and limb movements) or in satwikaabhinayas (emotive acting).
Octogenarian artiste Nelliyode Vasudevan Namboodiri, who passed away recently, donned the roles of demonic-characters almost throughout his career much against his wish. Nevertheless, he re-conceptualised his roles with his theatrical astuteness and imaginative aptitude. The result was remarkable. Through his portrayals, characters such as Dussasana, Thrigartha, Malyavaan, Baka, Kirmeera, Kali, Baali, Sugreeva, Nakrathundi and Simhika acquired a rare density and sensitivity in relation to and independent of the text and the contexts.
Even as a child, Nelliyode was immensely fond of Kathakali and his parents took him to P.S.V. Natyasangham, Kottakkal, for tutelage in the art form under the virtuoso Vazhenkada Kunju Nair. Kunju Nair believed that tradition had to be reinvented with an unfailing sense of reasoning backed by wisdom. An inquisitive Nelliyode was drawn not only to the rigorous training imparted by his Guru but to his artistic vision as well. When Kunju Nair left for Kerala Kalamandalam to become its Principal, he took along with him three of his disciples too: Nelliyode, Vijayan and Vasu Pisharodi. With the latter part of his training at Kalamandalam, Nelliyode was fortunate to be acquainted with the onstage performances of the titans in the field.
More than the body constitution, the upangas (eyes, cheek, chin, nose, lips) of Nelliyode were best suited for the representation of demonic characters. But for the awe inspiring Vellinezhi Nanu Nair, there was a dearth of talented actors in the erstwhile Cochin and south Malabar areas to portray demonic roles. Nelliyode stepped in to fill the void and soon made his mark as a compelling performer.
The practitioners of Kathakali and spectators at large had a notion that crudeness and crass humour formed the behavioural pattern of the negative characters. Nelliyode started re-envisioning such characters with his intimate reading of the plays concerned and the epics that deal with them. His portrayal of the character Kali, an evil spirit, in the play, Nalacharitham Day II , had, time and again, proved to be engrossing from the beginning till the end. As Indra discloses the news of Damayanthi’s swayamvara with King Nala, Kali is overcome with anger, anguish, frustration and shame. Nelliyode’s depiction of the multiple emotions of Kali was always evocative. As Kali impatiently waits 12 years for the right opportunity to get into the body of Nala, he experiences the seasons — spring, fall, winter and summer. This is an excerpt Nelliyode borrowed dexterously from the Koodiyattam play, Balivadham wherein Sugreeva is experiencing the same as one confined to live on a mountain to escape the wrath of his brother, Bali.
Free-style acting was the forte of Nelliyode. As Bali in Balivijayam and Balivadham , his performances were invariably spectacular. Nelliyode had a penchant for Ashtakalasham (a distinctively choreographed dance segment in the 10-beat cycle). He did it as Bali in Balivijayam to display the triumph of Bali over the invincible Ravana. Nelliyode as King Jarasandha in the play Rajasooyam , suspecting the identity of the two Pandavas (Bhima and Arjuna) and Krishna disguised as Brahmins in the course of their conversation, was always a fascinating visual treat for the audience.
Nelliyode’s presentation of Baka in the play Bakavadham , unable to resist his hunger as Bhima starts eating huge amounts of food while sitting in a cart in front of him, was a scene the viewers enjoyed unreservedly. Nelliyode’s Thrigartha dealing with the situations immediately preceding the stealing of the cows owned by king Virata used to be a hilarious act. The unabashed depiction of lust by the fierce Nakrathundi, the female-demon in the play Narakasuravadham, towards the handsome Jayantha, son of Lord Indra, was unforgettable in the actions and expressions of Nelliyode. His Simhika in Kirmeeravadham too used to receive appreciation from connoisseurs.
In contrast, Nelliyode was noted for the representation of two divergent characters, namely Kuchela/Sudama in Kuchelavrutham and Ghanaka/carpenter in Bakavadham . His enactment of Kuchela’s journey to Dwaraka and the long-awaited meeting with Krishna had won huge admiration from the audience. Nelliyode had deftly portrayed the mannerisms of Ghanaka, simultaneously sustaining curiosity and amusement in the minds of the viewers.
Scholar and performer
In life, Nelliyode was calm and composed. Well conversant with Sanskrit and the Puranas, he read a lot, wrote Kathakali plays and did translations of a few famous works in Sanskrit literature into Malayalam. Several years ago, Nelliyode had enacted the role of Don Quixote when the renowned literary piece was made into a Kathakali play.
His identity as a conventional Kerala Brahmin, committed to his routine poojas and prayers, did not, however, dissuade him from taking up such an offbeat role or travelling abroad several times. Nelliyode even choreographed a Purappad (prelude) for the negative characters, unheard of in Kathakali till then.
Many coveted awards and honours including the one from Sangeet Natak Akademy came his way one after the other. With the demise of Nelliyode Vasudevan Namboodiri, the style and substance he built up for the negative roles in Kathakali comes to an end. But the academic rigour he created and nurtured for portrayal of characters continue to be alive.