Ambassador of Kathakali

Graeme Vanderstoel hopes to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Kalamandalam’s first tour to the US with the screening of God With A Green Face, a film shot in 1970

Published - February 28, 2019 04:07 pm IST - Thiruvananthapuram

 US based Kathakali lover Graeme Vanderstoel

US based Kathakali lover Graeme Vanderstoel

One of Graeme Vanderstoel’s friends, Clifford Hocking, who had a record shop in Australia, made him listen to a LP record of Ustad Ali Akbar Khan (sarod) accompanied by Chathur Lal on the tabla. This was a 1955 recording made in New York that had Yehudi Menuhin introducing the artistes. At the end of it, Graeme decided he was going to India.

The ship journey from Australia to India took two weeks. Graeme landed in Bombay (Mumbai), his first visit to the country, in 1959. “Even before I stepped out of the ship I saw a South Indian festival listed in Bombay – Kalamandalam was performing and so were a number of South Indian musicians like TR Mahalingam, the flute player, and Alathur Brothers, vocalists, and Ali Akbar Khan with Pandit Ravi Shankar,” recalls Graeme who, on his recent visit to Kerala, visited Kerala Kalamandalam with his plans to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the institution’s first tour to the US.

The first time Graeme watched Kathakali was in Australia. “Kalamandalam Shivaram (Anand) was touring in 1957. This was a turning point in my life. It made me determined to go to Kerala. That week in Bombay was when I saw a complete Kathakali performance.” He was mesmerised by the performance by Krishnan Nair and Ramankutty Nair and decided he would come back to ‘explore’ this fascinating art form.

Graeme’s first visit to Kalamandalam was in February 1960. He spent many weeks there, got to know the actors and also the American dancer-scholar Clifford Jones and his wife, Betty True Jones, who were studying there. “Clifford was important because he was part of the reason why Koodiyattam was included in Kalamandalam. He did documentaries on Koodiyattam and two other films. We made plans to take Kalamandalam on tour.”

Life moved fast for Graeme. In 1964, he became Ali Akbar Khan’s international tour manager. “Touring with Khan Sahib gave me the privilege of seeing him and Balasaraswati teaching. The next year Clifford went off to study Indian Art in Pennsylvania and I was asked to run the summer school for American Society for Eastern Arts (ASEA) in Berkeley, California. When I was asked to come back full time, I returned to London to pack up the book business I ran but life took a different turn.”

In the wake of the Gold Rush, Graeme’s Green Card was delayed as the quota for Australians to the US was small and there was a big waiting list. “I was stuck in London when I heard that Kalamandalam was coming to Europe for a tour and for the Israel Festival. This was their first major overseas tour though they had been to Burma in the 1930s on a tour arranged by K Bharatha Iyer, who, two decades later, wrote his brilliant book on Kathakali, which I read in Australia. We corresponded and he was my guide when I first saw the performance in Bombay in 1959.”

That’s when the Arab-Israeli War took place and that segment of the tour got cancelled. “The Kalamandalam troupe was in Rotterdam and I flew in there.” Graeme and Hocking, who was by then an impresario, decided to rent a theatre and have Kalamandalam perform. “The manager of The Beatles had just leased out Saville Theatre in London and for a little more than two weeks we had 17 performances by Kalamandalam. We got the actors to do different roles.”

By 1967, Graeme became busy as director of programmes of ASEA, founded by Sam and Louise Scripps and based in California. Kalamandalam toured the US in 1970. It started from Honolulu in September 1970 and ended with three performances in New York City late November.

Vazhenkada Kunju Nair and Kottakkal Sivaraman

Vazhenkada Kunju Nair and Kottakkal Sivaraman

“Many people think of that period as the golden age of Kathakali. We had Kunju Nair, Padmanabhan Nair, Krishnan Nair, Ramankutty Nair, Nelliyode (Vasudevan Namboodiri), Kottakkal Sivaraman and many others. So we decided to make a film. It was a 25-minute film. I wasn’t around when they were editing it for it usually takes two years to complete such a project and by then I had left the Foundation to spend a couple of years back home in Australia. No one remembered to send this film to India, so no one got to see it.”

Graeme managed to track one of the student co-directors of the film. “I told the co-director, Myron Emrey, that it would be wonderful if we could restore the 16 mm film. It took us six months and now it is in the process of being finalised.”

This time, on his visit to Kalamandalam, Graeme met with the Vice Chancellor and discussed the possibility of screening the film next year, as the 50th anniversary of that momentous event. “Of the 10 actors of the 1970 tour, five of them – Gopi Asan, Nelliyode, MPS (Sankaran Namboodiri), Vasu Pisharody and Kalluvazhi Vasu - are alive today. I interviewed them on my recent visit, which, hopefully, I will be able to add as extras in the film.”

The film titled God With A Green Face is on the Ramayana. “It is interesting. When I saw the restored print it was great. It has narration by Kunju Nair, shows the process of make-up and he talks about how he became interested in Kathakali et al. It is on colour and I was surprised to see how accurate the colour was. It is a brilliant film, no long dance sequences and one of the early films to be made on Kathakali, the other being a black and white one made by the Films Division of India.”

“That was Kalamandalam’s first tour to the US. Subsequently we had another tour in 1973 to the US and Canada. Some of the actors were the same but there were others too like Kalamandalam Unnithan and Vijayan, Kunju Nair’s nephew. The ASEA also produced a book, Kathakali: An Introduction to the Dance Drama of Kerala by Clifford Jones and Betty True Jones and a LP record on The Music of Kathakali in conjunction with the 1970 tour.

A connoisseur of Kathakali, Graeme kept returning to Kalamandalam and touring with them till 1966. Then, for a rather long time, he was engaged in putting his life together.

There are some things Graeme misses and others he thinks should not be there. “One thing I miss and what I insisted on in the tours was the Thodayam, the dance that takes behind the curtain and the Keli. The lighting in those days were through pressure lamps. That has improved. But my big complaint is about the loudness of the performances.”

Kalamandalam has also gone through a metamorphosis. Instead of the guru-shishya relationship a curriculum is in place and ‘even the asans (teachers) get degrees’, says Graeme.

“It has its pros and cons. It keeps the institution financed and going but perhaps the organic growth of artistes is lost. In 1960, I remember that there was a structure and Killimangalam Vasudevan Namboodiripad, who was arts superintendent, even talked about the need of a curriculum. But certainly not the kind of material we have now. In 1960, there were probably a couple of dozen students, three or four teachers, a small office, the secretary, a peon. Now, I don’t know, there must be hundreds of students.”

For years now Graeme has been watching Kathakali. He has seen a whole generation of actors, seen it evolve; still not had enough of it. But there’s one performance that lingers in his memory- Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair’s Nala in Nalacharitham Day 1 .

Kalamandalam Gopi

Kalamandalam Gopi

“It was on a moonlit night in the centre of a rice field where the harvest was over outside of Kottakkal way back in 1966. The marked stage area had shrunk with people sitting all around. Then Krishnan Nair came and everyone moved to make space. I did not have a synopsis or anything. I remember vividly Nala seating Damayanti on his knee and telling her how beautiful she was. It seemed to go on for hours… It was so vivid, magical.”

The Ivory connection

Graeme met filmmaker James Ivory by chance in 1960 at the US Embassy Cultural Center in Kabul, which grew into a long-standing friendship. “Our friendship started when Jim heard that I knew Ali Akbar Khan who he had never met. He had used his music for his documentary film The Sword and the Flute . And Jim knew the finest sitar player Ustad Vilayat Khan, whom I had not met. Jim was using his music for the documentary The Seven Cities of Delhi .” A year later they met again at a café outside the British Museum in London. “Jim was in London to film 19th century photographs for the same documentary. With many mutual interests we stayed in touch. Then in 1970, when I was in tour with Kalamandalam I met him again in New York and asked him if he was visiting his relatives in Berkeley for Christmas. When he replied yes, I said I needed a best man for my marriage to Eve and he politely agreed.”

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