Kottakkal Devadas’ strength is his versatility

Kottakkal Devadas as Vidyutjihva in ‘Ravanothbhavam’ Kathakali

Kottakkal Devadas as Vidyutjihva in ‘Ravanothbhavam’ Kathakali   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

The Kathakali artiste, famous for his Thadi and Kari characters, is an artiste who revels in every role he enacts on the stage. The veteran recounts his journey

Vazhenkada, a small village in Malappuram district, is better known for its Narasimha temple and Kathakali. The village, made famous by Kathakali maestro Vazhenkada Kunju Nair, now boasts several artistes, chief of whom is Kottakkal Devadas.

Devadas is renowned for playing villainous Thadi or Kari characters like Dussasana, Veerabhadra, Kali and Nakrathundi, with their towering presence, bulging eyes and piercing roars. But Devadas’ performance goes beyond that. What sets him apart is that even through the heavy facial make-up of a Thadi character his expansive face can express emotions. He not only creates a huge impact, he provides a histrionic experience.

Kottakkal Devadas as a chuvanna thadi character

Kottakkal Devadas as a chuvanna thadi character   | Photo Credit: Nisha Menon Chempakassery

Sharath A Haridasan, director of the two-hour documentary in the making Stage On Fire, explains why he chose Devadas as his subject: “To me, Kottakkal Devadas is a bridge that connects the past and present. He's a huge influence on Kathakali’s future too. He’s loved by a majority of the liberal section of the older generation of Kathakali lovers as well as admired by the younger generation. He has been instrumental in bringing several youngsters to become viewers of Kathakali.”

Kottakkal Devadas as Karim Poothana in ‘Poothanmoksham’ Kathakali

Kottakkal Devadas as Karim Poothana in ‘Poothanmoksham’ Kathakali   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

Friday Review talks to Devadas, the 54-year-old versatile Kathakali artist who impresses with the entire spectrum of roles from hero to villain to comic, a Kathakali actor with a fan club. Excerpts from an interview:

Why did you decide to focus on Thadi characters? Was it a natural choice because of your big build?

I never wanted to do Thadi characters. In fact, my dream was to do Kathi roles such as Ravana and Duryodhana. I came into Thadi roles by chance. One day, the late Kottakkal Murali, who specialised in Thadi roles, was down with fever and my guru asked me if I could step in. I readily accepted since I didn’t have much else to do. Later Murali left the profession after an accident and gradually these roles fell to me. I used that chance and put all my energy into it. I resolved to prove Thadi characters could act. We are not just big strong guys that come on stage only to die. Then Kalamandalam Ramachandran Unnithan, another Thadi specialist, introduced me to southern Kerala. I grabbed that chance. I ensured I was noticed. But this road was long and hard and one full of struggles and heartaches.

Then let us go back and start at the beginning…

As a young boy I used to watch lots of Kathakali and I had decided this would be my career. I suppose art ran in my genes. My grandfather was the late Kavalappara Narayanan Nair, though he had died before I was born. My uncle was Kalamandalam Rajagopalan, a Kathakali artiste who left the field early. My mother and her sisters were well-versed in classical music and dance. It was uncle who encouraged me. My father was a bank manager and he didn’t want me to be a Kathakali artiste. His priority was education, a degree and a respectable job. I believe his objection was because in those days he saw some artistes wasting away their lives with erratic and undisciplined lifestyles. He didn’t want his son to go that route. I still remember the day I came back home with my uncle from PSV Natyasangham Kottakkal. I recall watching him tell my mother: ‘Kottakkal will accept him. But his face is not very good.’ In my enthusiasm, I never paid attention to that. But that statement would come to haunt me years later.

Kottakal Devadas

Kottakal Devadas   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

How were your early days in the field?

I joined Kottakkal in 1979 when I was 12. My stage début was a year later as Krishna in Subhadraharanam. My gurus were the late Kottakkal Krishnankutty Nair, Kottakkal Chandrasekhara Warrier and Kottakkal Sambhu Embrandiri. Kathakali is not easy to learn. There is a reason why the kalari regimen is severe and involved physical punishment. Threats, fear and punishment are part for the course. Certain postures — for example lifting one foot with the sole looking up and the knee bent at a particular angle — don’t come naturally to anyone.

Where did the struggle and heartaches come from?

I finished the eight-year course and had two more years of further training. I was employed as artiste by PSV Natyasangham after the tenth year. But that was also the start of a traumatic phase. I had a job, but no work. I wasn’t found suitable for any big role because I was tall, gaunt and not handsome. I realised what my uncle meant years ago when he told my mother my “face is not very good”. I took out my frustration on the kalari. I continued to do cholliyattam practice sessions even after my peers stopped because I didn’t have anything else to do. It was also a release for my frustrations. I thrived on the punishing schedule. Every taunt and insult charged my batteries.

I used to go for programmes with the Kottakkal troupe but got only some bit roles. I may have done a hundred Sakunis in Duryodhanavadham. The roles that junior artistes grow up doing such as Krishna in Duryodhanavadham, Kuchelavritham or Rugminiswayamvaram or roles such as Dharmangada, Prahlada, Ghatotkacha and Utharan eluded me. I had practised all these roles in the kalari but never got a chance to do on stage till now. Those were depressing days. The therapy I badly needed came in the form of a pep talk from a connoisseur who found me crying alone.

Kottakkal CM Unnikrishnan as Damayanthi and Kottakkal Devadas as Parnadan in ‘Nalachritham Day 3’

Kottakkal CM Unnikrishnan as Damayanthi and Kottakkal Devadas as Parnadan in ‘Nalachritham Day 3’   | Photo Credit: S Ramesh Kurup

What clicked on stage was my role as Brahmin in Rugmangadacharitham. I had a gift for comedy and I tapped that to win over the audience. I used to observe people and their mannerisms and sometimes would improvise on stage. People slowly started noticing me; they started asking for me.

Even today you are popular in comic roles such as Vriddha in Kuchelavritham and Mandhara in Ramayana.

They are legitimate Kathakali roles written and performed by our gurus. I never refuse a role but at the same time I ensure I perform only Kathakali without caricaturing it. The structure of Kathakali has been drilled into my body in 14 years of the kalari. I will never compromise on that.

But such portrayals would have been frowned upon by purists...

Of course. I have faced criticism at every turn, be it in a comic role or my focus on Thadi characters. But I have received more support than criticism, and endorsements from my gurus. The late vocalist Neelakantan Nambeesan told me about my Rugmangathacharitam Brahmanan. “This is the way to do it. This scene is a comical interlude before an emotionally charged scene.” That was a validation of my approach. Soon after I started doing Thadi roles, I visited my guru Krishnankutty Nair. He said he was happy I found a niche but cautioned me not to make it buffoonery. “Thadi roles are not second-rate ones. Stick to purity and clarity in kalasams and mudras. You can do it. When I first admitted you into Kottakkal I wasn’t sure where you would fit in. So I took extra care in training you for all the roles so that you would be an asset to any kalari”. That was again a confidence booster.

There is criticism about your lack of time management...

Kathakali was not meant to be measured in hours and minutes. In olden days, our asaans would present an inspired performance on a given day and no one complained about time. In such cases the second story of the night was cut short.

Another factor is the energy that we artistes receive from the audience. Kathakali is never performed in silence in a darkened hall. We see the audience, their reaction and get charged up. That too has a bearing on time.

Kathakali is an art form where seniority is considered sacrosanct. As society changes shouldn’t merit take precedence over seniority?

I believe seniority matters. Kathakali is not like a movie where someone graduating from an acting school can be given the lead role the next day. Kathakali is learnt and perfected in years of reiteration. Its strict syntax and idiom have to be instilled in one’s body. What is being presented is not just a story, but the story in the language of Kathakali. Respect and discipline are essential, on stage and in the green room. We don’t raise our voice in the green room. There are conventions to be followed. The mental preparation starts from the green room hours before you come on stage. Without this discipline you won’t last four hours on stage with such heavy costume and makeup. This discipline is what preserves Kathakali. It will be anarchy without this.

We see you performing more of heroic pacha and kathi roles these days. Is this a conscious shift?

I have never asked for a particular role. It’s either my employers or Kathakali organisers assigning me my roles. I know I am equipped to perform all roles. There is of course the question of preparing for a role. I read books, even translated works, to help me get a better grip on the characters and to gain new perspectives. Soon after I started doing Thadi characters, I had an offer to perform Jarasandhan. But I declined. I needed to do Sugreevan, Bali and Trigarthan several times before I attempted Jarasandhan. Finally I did that role 10 years after the initial offer. Similarly I have done pacha roles such as Nala and Bheema. But I am not ready to do Bahukan in Nalacharitam Fourth Day yet. I have some ideas but I need to develop them further. I will be ready soon.

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 2:56:11 AM |

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