Reviving Thullal

Seethankan thullal by Kalamandalam Prabhakaran   | Photo Credit: special arrangement

Thullal is one among those temple art forms of Kerala that has been struggling for survival, sandwiched as it is between Chakyarkoothu and Kathakali. The three types of Thullal – Ottanthullal, Seethankanthullal and Parayanthullal – which were created and popularised by Kunchan Nambiar, nowadays only have a handful of professional practitioners and a restricted audience. Kalamandalam Prabhakaran, an exponent of this art form, is on a mission to revive the glory of Thullal.

Son of Valliyodan Kunjambu Nair and Parambath Veetil Maakkamma, Prabhakaran spent his childhood in Cheruvathoor village near Payyanur, Kannur district, which has a rich tradition of performing arts thanks to the zest of poet and cultural impresario Kuttamath Kunhikrishna Kurup, who was a native of that area. And the late Malabar Raman Nair, whose contributions elevated Thullal to the status of a classical dance-theatre in the first quarter of the last century, was Prabhakaran's paternal uncle.

Different style

Says Prabhakaran: “My entry into Thullal was accidental. As my family could not afford the fees for the Matriculate examination, I was expelled from class. Thereafter my father took me to Malabar Raman Nair who took the initiative to enrol me in Kerala Kalamandalam for systemised training in Thullal.”

Prabhakaran had already trained in Thullal under K.T. Kumaran, a noted exponent of the art form in north Malabar. At Kalamandalam he came under the tutelage of Vaikom Divakaran Nair, who taught him the text, the steps, rhythms, diction and mode of singing. Prabhakaran's maiden performance was in 1962, two years after he joined Kalamandalam. On completion of the four-year training, he returned to his village as there were umpteen opportunities to perform Thullal there.

However, once there, he found himself at a loose end. “The style of Thullal in North Malabar was different from the one that I learnt at Kalamandalam. And therefore I did not join any of the performance groups in my village,” says Prabhakaran.

He later got a job in the mechanical wing of the Kerala State Road Transport Corporation (KSRTC) and retired as head of the mechanical wing.

Throughout all those years, though, the artiste in Prabhakaran refused to part with Thullal and he would often wonder why Parayanthullal went into oblivion in the mid-twentieth century.

Vechoor Thankamani Pillai was by then – the late 1970's – the only performer of Parayanthullal who could recollect something about the art form. Prabhakaran approached him and learnt the essentials of this distinctive style.

Based on these few lessons, a lot of practice, and interactions with vocalists and instrumentalists, Prabhakaran re-invented Parayanthullal. And ‘Pulindimoksham' (The salvation of Pulindi), a story extolling the invincible powers of Lord Siva, came alive on stage. The serpent-hood-shaped headgear worn by the performer and the anklet on one leg only were a couple of the distinctive features of Parayanthullal. tha ki tta tha ka thi mi. Bhakti is the main rasa.

The philosophical undercurrent of ‘Pulindimoksham' is what endeared the play to him, says Prabhakaran.The story, which centres on a hunter and his wife, Pulindi, is, in its essence, a conflict between the material and the spiritual.

‘Thullal thrayam'

Prabhakaran has also successfully choreographed ‘Thullal thrayam,' a combination of Ottanthullal, Seethankanthullal and Parayanthullal. The narrator and the characters are brought out separately in this composition, lending it the tone of a ballet. Its dramatic structure is intended to entertain the laity while retaining the basic features of Thullal in terms of Lakshmi and Marma taalas. His experimentation is perhaps a step towards liberating Thullal from its conventional constraints as a solo dance theatre narrative.

Prabhakaran vividly remembers the words of the late literary legend Thakazhi Sivasankara Pillai, who, a quarter century ago, watched one of his performances at the Kunchan Smarakam, Ambalapuzha: “The performer needs to just sing the lines of Nambiar well. Not more than a couple of hand gestures are to be employed in Thullal.”

Adds the artiste: “Nowadays, there is no correlation between hand gestures and the words sung. Moreover the variety of musical instruments used often swamp the performer's voice.”

A recipient of numerous awards, including those of the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi and Kerala Kalamandalam, the latest honour that has come Prabhakaran's way is the SreeGuruvayoorappan Kshetrakala Puraskaram. Each honour, he says, adds to his responsibility.

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Printable version | May 11, 2021 2:11:24 AM |

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