Master of all roles

Nelliyodu Vasudevan Namboodiri Photo: S. Gopakumar   | Photo Credit: S. Gopakumar

Meeting veteran artistes trained in the traditional performing arts transports you to an old world – down-to-earth people unaffected by hype, no pretences. Nelliyodu Vasudevan Namboodiri sums up all of this in his persona.

The seasoned Kathakali performer is now in the midst of rehearsals to fine-tune his delivery as Alonso Quixano in the Miguel Cervantes’ classic Don Quixote to be staged on July 22 in Spain when the country celebrates 400 years of the second volume of Don Quixote and its author Miguel Cervantes. “To adapt a complex play of this length in Kathakali is a gargantuan task, so P. Venugopalan extracted the parts that provide the scope for narration in a Kathakali format,” says Nelliyodu. It is Quixano before he falls into the larger than life illusory, and his return to the ‘real’ world that is portrayed by Nelliyodu.

As a Kathakali performer, Nelliyodu has donned all the veshams – chuvanna thadi, kari, karutha thadi, and minukku – quite contrary to the normal practice of a performer finding his forte in a specific vesham. He has his explanation for this feature.

“I hail from a family in Cheranalloor that practises tantric rites, where learning Sanskrit was a given. A childhood where the kaliyogam was a part of life was naturally conducive to opening my young mind to the art form. The fact that I belonged to a community that received no concessions to pursue education saw me lose out on formal schooling. In fact, when I landed up at Kalamandalam seeking entry, I was beyond that tender stage when a beginner takes his initiation in the performing arts. I still remember being told at Kalamandalam that I may not be able to adhere to the customs and food patterns that I was used to, thus prompting me to seek entry at the PSV Natyasangham in Kottakkal in 1957. Vazhenkada Kunju Nair Asan took me under his wings and I trained in the Kalluvazhi tradition,” he says.

As was customary in those times, when Kunju Nair Asan shifted to Kerala Kalamandalam in Cheruthuruthy, the shishya too relocated.

As his training advanced, Nelliyodu became the chosen one to don some of the major roles. He was older than the others in the batch and had the physical stature to carry off heavier characters. “For five long decades, I have been donning pradhana veshams although my major maiden public stage was at Thirunavaya as Hanuman.” From the mild Brahmin in ‘Kuchelavritham’ to the Kali in ‘Nalacharitham’ or as Thrigartha, Dussasana, Baka, Veerabhadra, Nakrathundi or Simhika, Nelliyodu has delivered each, creating a new dimension in the performance. His interpretations of evil characters elevated the role from the mundane display of the negative and the evil.

After his stint in Kalamandalam, Nelliyodu relocated to the capital where he headed a full-fledged seven-member team of artistes and musicians in the Kathakali classes held at Attakulangara Central High School for two decades before the school fell into bad times.

“The Education Department had taken a decision in the seventies that Kathakali must be taught in one school in every district, and the Attakulangara Central School was the chosen one. Today when the School is being resuscitated, I am back doing my mite to revive the institution by imparting Kathakali training to a small group of students.”

It is payback time for Nelliyodu, who is offering this service for free. “This is the least I can do for the institution that gave me a salary many decades ago,” says Nelliyodu, whose words take you back to the qualities of a man made in a mould that attached little value to the materialistic elements in life. Taking one thing at a time, his mindspace is now taken up by Alonso Quixano and little else.

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Printable version | Sep 24, 2021 3:44:35 AM |

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