An unmatched artiste

Kathakali thespain Mankombu Sivasankara Pillai.   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Guru Chengannoor Raman Pillai who ruled the Kathakali stage in south Kerala in the last century was mentor of many an illustrious actor. Each of them had carved out a style of his own that very soon became the audience’s delight. Of them, the nonagenarian Monkombu Sivasankara Pillai passed away recently, leaving a deep sense of loss in the minds of many rasikas.

Sivasankara Pillai’s career graph began to rise in Kathakali as an actor well-versed in the enactment of female roles. The small, medium and major female roles he handled in Kathakali instantly established a rapport not only with the titans who enacted the Nayaka and Pratinayaka characters but with the beholders too. As Damayanthi, Panchali, Mohini and Devayani, he was, in his prime youth, a cut above the rest of his colleagues.

An interesting turn of events in his life took Pillai to the renowned ‘Darpana Dance Academy’ at Ahmedabad run by danseuse and veteran choreographer Mrinalini Sarabhai. At the academy he encountered different dance and theatre traditions that eventually fuelled his creative pursuits in Kathakali. He did not stay that long at Darpana.

On his return to Kerala, Sivasankara Pillai did a lot of introspection based on his understanding of and interactions with several high-end artistic traditions.

This, in course of time, had a far-reaching impact on his growth and stature as a Kathakali actor. In the enactment of heroic characters such as Nala, Arjuna, Bhima and Brihandala or in the portrayal of villainous characters like Duryodhana, Ravana and Keechaka, Sivasankara Pillai displayed commendable histrionic dexterity and an admirable level of rationality. His angikabhinaya invariably bore a distinctive grace while his satwikabhinaya was always backed by a strong sense of textual reasoning and intrinsic strength of each character. Pillai’s manodharmams (improvisations) had both contextual logic and an exciting dynamism.

Since joining Kerala Kalamandalam as professor of the South School of Kathakali in the late 1970’s, Pillai got plenty of opportunities to perform alongside the greats of the Kalluvazhi chitta. Pillai’s Brahmin in the ‘Santhanagopalam’ play had always been an exhilarating experience for the spectators.

The substance of Pillai’s thoughts on Kathakali and empirical experience in the field of Kathakali are pretty evident in the book, Kathakali Swaroopam, which he wrote along with his brother, Professor C.K. Sivarama Pillai.

In recognition of his outstanding contributions to the art of Kathakali, a series of awards and titles came his way. Among those are the Central Sangeet Natak Akademy Award, Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Academy Award, Kerala Kalamandalam Fellowship, the State Government Award and the Gurupooja Puraskaram from the Central Sangeet Natak Academy.

Years ago, Sivasankara Pillai became bed-ridden following a paralytic stroke much to the shock and distress of his fans in India and abroad. Yet none of his colleagues, disciples and fans has forgotten his serene and graceful figure on and off stage, disarming smile and dynamic disposition. With his demise, a strikingly exclusive style of acting in Kathakali has vanished forever.

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Printable version | Jul 27, 2021 1:48:55 PM |

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