His art hid many aches of the heart

Tirur Nambissan  

At age 38, he foresaw a bright career and moved with his family into a culturally vibrant village in Palakkad district. Only that Tirur Nambissan’s life in Sreekrishnapuram spanned just 16 years.

The death of the Kathakali musician in 1994 was sad news, particularly for the purists of the classical art. For Puliyil Narayanan, as was his original name, it was an end to a string of tragedies — personal and professional.

If it was after the early death of his mother Nangeli Brahmaniyamma that 17-year-old Nambissan enrolled himself as a music student in Kerala Kalamandalam, he suffered another blow midway through his course when his sister, P. Sreedevi, inexplicably committed suicide back home at Thrikkandiyur near Tirur in south Malabar.

“That incident in 1962 drove him practically mad,” says his son P. Mohanan. “I’m told he threw away all the deities they worshipped in the family. He became a non-believer and discontinued with his routine evening bhajana renditions at Kalamandalam.”

A personal diary of the late singer says his guru Neelakantan Nambissan took special efforts to bring the young man back on track. Having debuted on stage in 1960, the young vocalist passed out of the institution at Cheruthuruthy in 1965 after being trained also under gurus such as Sivaraman Nair and Kavungal Madhava Panikar.

Kathakali music was what equipped him to become a professional, but that wasn’t Nambissan’s first tryst with the arts. At seven, he took classes from a neighbourhood Carnatic vocalist N.K. Vasudeva Panikkar. Interestingly, the boy’s elder sister Uma Devi and their father Damodaran Nambissan learned classical music as a trio.

Following his wife’s death, Damodaran Nambissan married a second time, but she died soon — of tuberculosis. All but one of his three brothers also expired meanwhile. Panikkar decided it was time the brooding teenager got fresh life; Nambissan got enrolled at Kalamandalam in 1957.

His classmates went on to become illustrious. Kalamandalam Sankaran Embranthiri and Hyderali fought orthodoxy to enrich the genre with new trends that continue to be popular, while Madambi Subrahmanian Nambudiri’s faith in tradition too has its measure of fanfare.

Madambi, the only living artiste of Nambissan’s batch, recounts the bond they shared. “We had our arangettam together. Soon, we would interchange roles as the lead and supporting singer. Eventually, he chose to settle as my shankidi, considering my steady scholastic experience,” he says.

Unlike Madambi, 70, who worked all his service years in Kalamandalam (where he is even today a temporary lecturer), Nambissan seldom managed to stick to one school. He had brief tutorial stints at his alma mater, besides in Sadanam Akademi near Ottapalam, Kalanilayam (Irinjalakuda), Muthappan Kaliyogam (Parassinikadavu) and even outside Kerala — in Delhi and Mumbai.

His unsteady life also prompted Nambissan to take to alcohol in a big way. Even so, his assisting an equally bohemian Unnikrishna Kurup made them a hit vocalist pair on the Kathakali stage in the 1980s.

Not shy of partnering in experimental ventures and always siding silently with the Leftist movements in Kerala, he sang for Manava Vijayam — a Communism-inspired story-play that poet-novelist Iyankode Sreedharan introduced into Kathakali in the late 1980s.

Also, Nambissan was an avid reader. “We had a tough time fetching books for father,” says Mohanan, a teacher at the high school in Peringode near Pattambi.

It was at the same place that Nambissan, who was also close to the Poomulli Mana and a staffer at the Kathakali school the aristocrats ran for three years from 1980, performed his last — on August 8, 1994. Suffering from consumption, diabetes and blood pressure, Nambissan was only 54 when he died of brain haemorrhage two days later at his Sreekrishnapuram home.

This Saturday, the Kathakali Promotion Society in Peringode is organising a function in remembrance of the master. Young vocalist Kalaniyalam Rajeevan will be given away the 2013 Tirur Nambissan award.

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Printable version | Nov 30, 2021 4:59:08 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/news/cities/Kochi/his-art-hid-many-aches-of-the-heart/article5000309.ece

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