He redefined Kathakali

Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon.   | Photo Credit: mail picture_grkrm

When Kerala poet laureate Vallathol Narayana Menon and Manakkulam Mukanda Raja formed the Kerala Kalamandalam in 1930 to preserve the art of Kathakali, which lacked proper patronage, they had one name in their mind to assign the mantle of the Guru and that was Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon (1880-1948). So he became the first chieftain of the institutional art. His 131st birth anniversary is on September 28.

The modern history of Kathakali begins where the life history of Pattikkamthodi ends. “As life expectancy during his time was relatively low, at the age of 68 he was bed-ridden. Though he was sure that he had reached the end of his life, which was devoted to Kathakali for almost six decades, his only desire was to perform one last time with his specially made and renovated head-gear,” his eldest son and last disciple, the late Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair (1928-2007), former Principal of Kerala Kalamandalam, had said.

Captivated by the dance

When he was nine years old, Ravunni Menon happened to watch two days of Kathakali performances that captivated him and he skipped school just to watch them rehearse. Finally that monsoon saw him leaving school and getting initiated into Kathakali training under Kuyilthodi Ittiraricha Menon (1828-1903), who was from the nearby Kalluvazhi village and was known as the apostle of Kalluvazhi tradition, a crucial legacy of the art.

Ittiraricha Menon asked him to walk around to test his innate rhythm sense and then make some eye movements. Impressed by his strong sense of rhythm, Menon accepted him as a disciple but felt, “his face was rough and physically very weak” and that “he may be good if well trained”.

Kottaya Thampuran (17th Century) refined the acting methodology with grammar for body kinetics, introduced subtle, physically demanding and highly disciplined movements, rasa abhinaya and the practice of punctuating the abhinaya with kalasam, the pure dance segments. In fact, the art of Ramanattam (the dance of Rama) became Kathakali (story-play) when Thampuran wrote four plays, ‘Bakavadham,' ‘Kalyanasougandhigam,' ‘Krimeeravadham' and ‘Nivatakavacha Kalakeyavadham,' respectively with episodes from the Mahabharata and added them to the repertoire.

Since then, both the masters and aficionados of the art endorse the view that actors who excelled in the hero roles of the four Kottayam plays are capable of handling any role in Kathakali. This is justified as discipline in the movements of every limb and highly intricate stage aesthetics are the hall marks of Kottayam compositions.

Obviously, all the leading (hero) roles of Kottayam plays were among Pattikkamthodi's celebrated ones. His most favourite role was that of Dharmaputhra in ‘Krimeeravadham,' which he always approached with a sense of devotion. His acclaimed anti-hero roles (in Kathi – knife-type make-up - that portrays the arrogant and evil with a streak of valour) were Ravana of ‘Ravotbhavam' and ‘Balivijayam,' and Narakasura of ‘Narakasuravadham' among others. Pattikkamthodi's last role was of Dharmaputra of (‘Krimeeravadham').

His disciples began to celebrate his birthday at the Gandhi Seva Sadan Kathakali Academy and commemorate his death anniversary at the Kerala Kalamandalam, according to the Malayalam calendar - on the 12th and second days of the month Kanni respectively, which usually falls in September.

A milestone

Ravunni Menon also trained under the scholars of the Kodungalloor royal family for about five years. This was a milestone in his career as the manodharma (power of imagination) abhinaya achieved poetic perfection that he passed down to generations and his exposure to the ‘mukha ragas' techniques (facial expressions by controlling the breath – ‘prasanna', ‘raktha', ‘shyama' and ‘swabhavika') revolutionised the subtle acting of Kathakali. The uniqueness in the enactment of death by Keechaka from ‘Keechakavadham' is highlighted as an example.

Ravunni Menon maintained a note book, unlike performers of that time, and recorded his opinion on the method of training, observations about ‘abhinaya,' subtle acting techniques to be adopted while executing manodharma, about the significance of sustaining the stayi (permanent emotion) of the role and play, along with some autobiographical sketches.

Right from the beginning of his career, Ravunni Menon was respected as a perfect trainer and actor. At 20, his teacher Ittiraricha Menon, recommended him for the various teaching and performing assignments, for which Menon himself was invited. Such recognition underscores his talent and the broadmindedness of his mentor.

When he was 24, he was given the title ‘Menon' (a practice then prevailing in Kerala as a token of permanent recognition) by the Kottakkal royal family when he was there for a performance. Ravunni Menon believed that Kathakali is a traditional and stylised pantomime dance-drama with emphasis on abhinaya.

Today, his tradition is synonymous with the perfected style of Kathakali and all the veterans and noted artists of central Kerala belong to the Pattikkamthodi school. Late legendary masters of the art such as Keezhpadam K.R. Kumaran Nair, Vazhengada Kunju Nair, Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair and Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair (also his son) were Pattikkamthodi's acclaimed disciples. Octogenarian Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair is the sole surviving disciple of Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon. Reputed dancers of the past such as Ragini Devi, Santha Rao and Kalyanikutty Amma also trained under him.

(The writer is the Director of the Centre for Kutiyattam of the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi, Delhi)

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Printable version | Oct 21, 2021 6:52:25 PM |

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