Yesterday once more

Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair. Photo: K.K. Gopalakrishnan  

Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair, a Padma Bhushan recipient in the field of Kathakali who turns 86 in May 2012, is a vital chapter in both the history of Kathakali and Kerala Kalamandalam, which started in 1930 to preserve and protect the art of Kathakali. In another continent, at Brent Knoll of Somerset in the UK, lives his friend David Bolland who will turn 94 on January 21 this year, with nostalgic memories of Kerala and Kathakali.

For the love of Kathakali

Born in 1919 in Cairo, Bolland sailed to India in 1946 as an official of the then Peirce Leslie & Co. and settled in Kozhikode in 1950. He saw his first Kathakali play in 1954, with the legendary late Guru Kunju Kurup in the leading role. From then, until his retirement in 1971 and return to England, Bolland saw 146 performances, kept notes on each and filmed many and became the first to document Kathakali. He wrote A Guide to Kathakali (1980) that went to three editions. His 40-minute “Masque of Malabar” and the shorter “Malabar Masque”, essentially on Kathakali and Kerala, won 26 awards at international amateur film festivals.

Until 1992, however, Bolland visited Kerala filming performances entirely at his own expense, and his recordings of the late and retired maestros run into almost 100 hours including the cholliyattams (performances/ practice without costumes) of technically demanding plays performed by none other than the late thespian Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair himself.

These treasures are preserved at the archive of Rose Bruford College, Kent, in London and the David Bolland Performing Arts Centre in Thrissur; no other institution in the country has a similar footage on Kathakali. In England, the man deeply integrated into the culture of Kerala named his home “Malabar”; later when he sold this palatial house and bought a smaller one nearby, the name stayed.

Almost all the Kathakali exponents who belong to the 1950 to1990 period are among his friends; they affectionately called him “Bolland saippu”. A few months ago, during my stay with David, I asked him whether he was bored being alone; his wife Peggy passed away in 2003 and their only daughter Diana Phillips has settled near Stratford. “I won't be bored. I will watch a DVD with Ramankutty in a Kathi role or Padmanabhan's cholliyattam,” he said instantly. Interestingly, on another end, Sheffield based, Mumbai born, Dr. Seena with an MRCP in child psychiatry, who perhaps has never seen a live Kathakali performance is in the process of producing a documentary film, “The Legend of Malabar”, on the contributions of David. She assigned me several tasks including scripting, directing and looping in those thespians associated with David like Ramankutty Nair and septuagenarian Kalamandalam Gopi; unfortunately David's dear friend Padmanabhan is no more.

Training ground

Ramankutty Nair lives in the interior Adakkapputhur of Vellinezhi that sustained the art of Kathakali in central Kerala and is home to a majority of the artists' clan. It is a couple of hours drive from Thrissur and one has to pass through the road right in front of the Kalamandalam, the alma-mater of those stalwarts.

Passing by Kalamandalam, my mind went back in time when years ago as a boy, while strolling around the Kalamandalam campus after watching a performance the previous night, I ran into a bare-bodied stout gentleman with an ornate gold chain around his neck. There was a certain rhythm hard to miss in his gait. Suddenly the chatter of the youngsters around stopped; they quietly greeted him with great respect. “That is Ramankutty asan. He played Hanuman a few hours ago,” said someone in a hushed tone. Here was the mighty monkey god who had jumped over the ocean, slain demons and set fire to Lanka, going about his life like an ordinary mortal, chewing tobacco early in the morning.

At the bus stop just opposite the Kalamandalam gate I saw another gentleman, totally different from others, with a small cotton bag slung on his left shoulder. He was in a hurry to finish smoking his beedi before the next bus to Shornur, some four km away, arrived. The red mark on his cheek and the reddened eye signalled that he was also an actor. I was told that that he was none other than the reverberatingly vibrant Ravana that I saw a few hours ago. He was Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair.

I reached the doorstep of Ramankutty Nair to find the humble octogenarian looking at the gate from a window. While reflecting on David, his eyes brimmed with tears.

The writer is Director, Centre for Kutiyattam, Thiruvananthapuram, of the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi, Delhi.

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Printable version | Apr 18, 2021 8:22:27 PM |

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