Friday Review

In his own performance space

Kalamandalam Ramachandran Unnithan. Photo: M. Moorthy

Kalamandalam Ramachandran Unnithan. Photo: M. Moorthy  

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The going may have been tough for Kathakali asan Ramachandran Unnithan, but that pushed him to perfect his art

Every artist dreams of playing the hero. And experiences that fraction of a moment’s hesitation before agreeing to don the villain’s role. For Kathakali maestro, Kalamandalam Ramachandran Unnithan, the moment descended upon him so unexpectedly that there was no time to think, let alone choose.

“It was the year 1975. I had completed my six-year diploma and two-year post-diploma at Kalamandalam. My gurus were away on their first performance tour abroad. Sadanam Krishnankutty, our visiting professor, had taken a group of students including myself, to Sadanam for the annual Pattikanthodi Day Fest. ‘Bali Vijayam’ was scheduled as the third play. But the main artist could not make it. There I was, a spectator, suddenly transformed into Bali (chuvanna thadi) at the urging of my asan. Soon, other roles followed. On their return, my gurus were pleasantly surprised to note that I had matured considerably as an artist.”

“Since then, I have never looked back,” says Unnithan asan. “A steady stream of kalis keeps me busy the year round. Quite amazing, considering that I am an independent artist, not attached to any particular institution. While Kalamandalam birthed me, Sadanam Krishnankutty asan nurtured me.”

Over the past 40 years, he has run the gamut from pacha, kathi and thadi to kari roles, specialising in chuvanna thadi tamasic characters such as Jarasandha, Dushasana, Trigartha and Baka, with a unique lokadharmi slant that has endeared him to audiences throughout Kerala and abroad. Bharata Malayan in Nizhal Kuthu (Mahabharatam) and the Mannaan vesham in the Mannaan-Mannaathi episode in ‘Lavanasuravadham’ (Ramayanam) are among his signature acts.

“Art must reach the lay audience, easily communicate emotions and situations to the common man,” he affirms, flicking his wrist to illustrate how the casual ‘come here’ gesture can form part of performance vocabulary. Even before posing for the photo shoot, his mobile features and large expressive eyes announce that asan is a performer.

“There are special exercises for facial and eye muscles,” he demonstrates as he embarks on rasa abhinaya for the navarasa. Despite a whirlwind schedule, he makes it a point to teach during his rare free spells and relates an interesting anecdote.

“A French actor with no prior Kathakali training wanted to enact the role of Baka in ‘Bakavadham.’ I put him through an intensive regime. After just 15 days, he gave a creditable performance. Now, that’s dedication,” he lauds his student.

Asan’s artistic journey began at age eight under the tutelage of Kareepra Vasu Pillai at Plakkodu, Kottarakkara. His arangetram at 12 was in the Kali vesham in ‘Nalacharitham – Day 2’ at Kollam. “After the programme, a member of the audience gave me Rs.10 and blessed me,” recounts asan.

Entering Kalamandalam, helmed by Vazhenkata Kunju Nair, his gurus were Ramankutty Nair, Padmanabhan Nair and Gopi. “Ramankutty asan’s portrayal of Hanuman (vella thadi) was unmatched. His body language, the way he surrendered himself to the spirit of Vayu putra… he lived the role.”

“Our day began at 4 a.m. During the monsoon months, there was uzhichil (oil massage) followed by preparatory exercises at 6 a.m., so exacting, that the sweat flowed in rivulets to collect in pools,” recollects asan. “We had wheat kanji at 7.30, followed by a practical session from 8-12. Lunch consisted of four chapathis and a large mound of rice with sambar. But the exercises made us so ravenous that we found this portion woefully inadequate! On days when the music students gave us their chapathis, we got lucky. Post lunch, we had theory and Sanskrit classes, a glass of chai in the evening and an early dinner that echoed the lunch menu.”

Each student was granted a monthly stipend of Rs.50, paid directly to the cook who ran the canteen. “If we lunched off-campus for a week, we would receive a kizhivu (discount) of Rs.5 in hand, a princely sum back then! So we’d try to head home for lunch on some days.”

“One fact that my generation can vouch for is that the rod was never spared. Mistakes and mis-steps earned swift, painful retribution through the kazhi (rhythm stick). Yet, those who persevered and successfully passed the stringent tests rank among today’s stalwarts.”

“Training and boarding were fully government -subsidised. However, the discipline was so strict that many students could not cope and simply ran away. Several times. Only to be brought back by anxious parents and relatives. Why? If a student quit mid-way, his family was required to pay a stiff penalty of Rs. 6000 to Kalamandalam, as reimbursement for costs incurred! Entirely justified,” he chuckles, “in view of the sarkar’s investment of time and money in each pupil.”

“Now, things have changed,” he muses. “We relied on kandarivu (observation), kettarivu (listening) and kondarivu (lessons learned from the rod). Today, the curriculum focusses equally on formal education. Students speak English and confidently handle foreign tours. Our generation needed interpreters.”

Unnithan asan is widely appreciated for the limitless encouragement he extends to co-artists.

“Junior or senior, once on stage, artists are like brothers, irrespective of caste or religion. Extend a helping hand, never show them up or let them down. Always elevate their artistry to a higher level”, is his credo. He should know, having performed with legends and three generations of artists. Awards such as ‘Gurupuja’ from Sangeet Natak Akademi, ‘Arunadhyuthi’ from Keli, ‘Kalahamsam’ from Ernakulam Kathakali Club, Kerala Natyadharmi, the Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair Puraskaram, Pattikanthodi Ravunni Menon Smaraka Puraskaram and Ministry of Culture's Senior Fellowship are among the richly deserved honours that have come his way.

Asan is a contented man. His 60 year felicitation ceremony, the release of his recently published biography, aptly titled ‘Kachaiyum Mizhukkum’ and a diary overflowing with performance engagements make him thankful for destiny’s bounty.

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Printable version | Jan 29, 2020 8:19:39 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/in-his-own-performance-space/article7818401.ece

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