Time to save a legacy

Chantu Panikkar teaches Balagopal, Janardhanan and Dhananjayan. Photo Courtesy: K.K. Gopalakrishnan  

It is perhaps the most ancient style of Kathakali. There are only five living practitioners of the Kallatikkotu style left today. The art is indeed on the verge of extinction.

All the five living artists trained or exposed to the great legacy are past 70 and the three most significant among them have not been practising for several decades now. There are no new takers and its pristine nuances are yet to be documented for posterity.

The art of Ramanattam (composed by Kottarakkara Thampuran, who probably lived during the 1555-1605 period) and improved by Vettath Raja, became Kathakali when Kottayam Thampuran of Kannur composed four plays based on the Mahabharata. Thampuran delegated the choreography of his plays and training of the artists to Vellatt Chathu Panikkar, a Ramanattam exponent. (Since then and till date, these four plays are regarded as ‘the faultless Kottayam stories.’ Mastering these plays is essential in Kathakali training.)

After a few years of his assignment with Kottayam Thampuran, Vellatt Chathu Panikkar started a Kathakali school at Pulappatta in Kallatikkotu area of Palakkad district. Several young Ramanattam practitioners and new aspirants from various localities went to there to train with Vellatt in the new repertoire.

Thus, Kathakali spread and emerged as the foremost legacy of the art known as the Kallatikkotu tradition. A few decades later, from Kallatikkotu surfaced another style, the Kaplingatu, thanks to improvisations by Netumpura Valiya Itteeri Panikkar and Kaplingat Narayanan Namboodiri of Thrissur in central Kerala. As it progressed towards the north and the south respectively, the Kallatikkotu style came to be known as the Northern School and Kaplingatu as Southern School of Kathakali.

Gradually when the art got further disseminated throughout the State, several auxiliary and regional schools sprouted with provincial variations as a natural process.

Thus, the Kallatikkotu style is considered the most pristine and unadulterated, known for several organically aesthetic traits. Through the lineage of subsequent masters such as Vellatt Kunchunni Panikkar and his disciple, Tholannur Eechara Menon, it flourished. Literally backing its other name as northern style, its sustenance was in the northern districts of Kerala.

The celebrated Panikkar trios of Kathakali -- the late gurus Chantu Panikkar, Ambu Panikkar and Chinta Panikkar, groomed by none other than Tholannur -- were Kallatikkotu icons of the 20 Century. One of their earliest disciples, Puthiyedath Krishnan, migrated to Kerala Kalamandalam on the invitation of poet laureate Vallathol and came to be known as Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, a legend of the art.

Their other disciples and the Kannan trios of Kathakali -- Kana Kannan Nair, Kannan Pattali and Sami Kanna Marar -- were unable to groom a disciple worth sustaining the tradition due to lack of proper institutional support.

The grand old man of the Indian performing arts, 99-year-old Chemencherri Kunhiraman Nair, groomed by Palayil Karunakara Menon (son and disciple of Tholannur Eechara Menon), is a significant link to the ancient Kallatikkotu tradition. The role of Krishna is his forte, not the technically demanding heroes of Kottayam plays.

Of late, due to advancing age, the master performs in a limited way. Thespian Sadanam Balakrishnan (disciple of Keezhpatam Kumaran Nair) also learnt some significant characteristics of the Kallatikkotu legacy from Sami Kanna Marar and subsequently from Kana Kannan Nair.

During his tenure at Kalakshetra, Chennai, Chantu Panikkar, along with his disciple and Ambu Panikkar’s son K.P. Kunhiraman, trained V.P. Dhananjayan, C.K. Balagopal and A. Janardhanan (Chantu Panikkar’s son) in Kathakali.

“We practised Kathakali in the morning and Bharatanatyam in the afternoon. Our training was systematic and began with the basics; no short-cuts. So even though we are not practising it now, whatever we have learnt, we have not forgotten; it is still in tact in our memory,” says Prof. Janardhanan.

V.P. Dhananjayan attributes it to the “specialty of the training methodology of Kathakali.” After leaving Kalakshetra at a young age to pursue his art independently, especially Bharatanatyam, he “made an effort to retain Kathakali and even procured the costume. But without the support of other artists, it is nearly next to impossible to take up an art form such as Kathakali in an ‘alien’ land. Those days, artists in Kalakshetra, including my wife Shanta, were forbidden from associating with me.”

They were trained in all the technically demanding plays, and more important, in the Kottayam plays, invariably the essence of the Kallatikkotu style.

“In my training, the additional focus was on female roles,” says Balagopal, who handled all the heroine roles of Kalakshetra’s Kathakali presentations of that time.

These three septuagenarians have left an indelible mark in the stream of Bharatanatyam. They believe that their systematic training in Kathakali aided their pursuits in Bharatanatyam as foreseen by Rukmini Devi. They have their own valid grounds for overlooking Kathakali.

While talking about Kathakali and its Kallatikkotu tradition, these septuagenarians are unanimously confident that ‘with regard to Kathakali, whatever is in our mind is exhibited in the physique too.’ Sadanam says, “In that case, it may be possible to sustain several traits of this style before its complete extinction.”

It’s high time to get together these five thespians and document the style before it is lost for ever, at least for the sake of posterity and future researchers. Definitely not an easy task, because vocal and instrumental musicians too are to be suitably trained in the intricacies of the style under the guidance of these masters.

Indeed, hope often helps an endeavour succeed.

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Printable version | Apr 20, 2021 3:12:58 AM |

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