History & Culture

How Vechoor Thankamani revived Thullal

Vechoor Thankamani performing Seethankan Thullal.  


As the rain soaks their home on the shore of Vembanad Lake, the sights and sounds of monsoon stir a family’s memories about their late patriarch. During this season, Vechoor Thankamani would typically use the break from his busy performance schedule to do some farming. Then would come Onam. After the harvest festival in late August-September, the artiste would leave home for long spells to perform at temple festivals across Kerala. There, he would stage the song-and-dance Thullal, which is steeped in satire on contemporary society even as the themes are mythological; afternoon shows of rustic entertainment.

At some venues, Thankamani would be back on the dais by dusk, to anchor the equally folksy Kurathiyattam. This traditional theatre would require a couple of fellow actors in addition to the singer-percussionist duo who had accompanied him earlier in the day.

All these are nuggets from Kerala’s 20th century cultural history. The maestro Thankamani (1910-98) represents a bygone era when simplicity defined community celebrations and classicism was yet to be burdened by sophisticated stage techniques. “Back home too, life was spartan,” says Gopalakrishna Panikkar, Thankamani’s septuagenarian son, who lives in their ancestral village of Vechoor near Vaikom in Kerala’s Kottayam district. “We would tend the coconut trees, grow vegetables. In less busy times at dawn, father would take an elaborate oil massage before bathing in the pond in our backyard.”

Winning top laurels didn’t change Thankamani’s plain lifestyle. In 1995, he became the first (and thus far, only) Thullal practitioner to win the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi award; the Kerala chapter had honoured him in 1980. A year before his death, Thankamani earned a particularly special recognition: the Kunchan Nambiar Memorial Prize.

The Kunchan Nambiar Memorial Prize that Thankamani earned a year before his death.

The Kunchan Nambiar Memorial Prize that Thankamani earned a year before his death.  

Kunchan Nambiar (1705-70) was the progenitor of Thullal, penning a massive body of 64 long poems that remain the chief literary source of the Purana-themed form. Some other works show his scholarship in Sanskrit, but the Thullal verses in lucid Malayalam were composed with ordinary people in mind. The prize is awarded by the Kunchan Nambiar Memorial Society, based in Nambiar’s native Killikurissimangalam, 30 km west of Palakkad.

The last years

Two years before this, Thankamani had had to use a wheelchair when he went to receive the Sahitya Akademi citation from former President Shankar Dayal Sharma. In his last half-decade, ill-health forced the master to stay away from performances, recalls his daughter N.K. Remadevi. “A tissue growth on his forehead worsened by the early 1990s, requiring surgery. That ended his seven-decade career,” she says. Remadevi, who was taught by her father, performs both Thullal and Kurathiyattam.

Vechoor Thankamani’s daughters N.K. Remadevi and Radhamani Amma

Vechoor Thankamani’s daughters N.K. Remadevi and Radhamani Amma  

Her sisters N.K. Padmini and Radhamani Amma would also join their father on stage when they were young, while their brother Gopalakrishnan, and Thankamani’s brother, Chinnappan Panikkar, played the mridangam; the shows effectively became a family affair. “Our enthusiasm was much like father’s own childhood passion for the art,” says Radhamani.

Thullal enticed Thankamani as a little boy when he saw it at the nearby Subrahmanya shrine festival. The regular performer there, Parippu Kuttan Menon, became his guru. Learning Sanskrit from his father N. Madhavan Pillai proved helpful, and by the end of his teenage years, Thankamani was proficient in 25-odd stories in all three varieties of Thullal: Ottan, Seethankan and Parayan.

Kalamandalam Prabhakaran, now settled in Kochi, says he learned the nuances of Parayan Thullal from Thankamani in the 1980s. “Such an unadorned genre!” he says. Scholar Rameshan Thampuran of Tripunithura says Thankamani was “quite a star” at the Poornathrayeesa festival there. “His mudras were charmingly raw; the vocals weren’t raga-heavy. Neither was the choreography over-stylised as it is today.”

Authentic and simple

This austerity enhanced the appeal of Thankamani’s Kurathiyattam as well. Enacting the tale of Shiva and Parvati in the forest, its lyrics are partly in Tamil. Ezhikara Gopala Pillai taught Thankamani this art, which is laced with humour owing to Shiva’s passing suspicion about his consort’s fidelity.

For all his respect for convention, Thankamani experimented with certain new-age Thullal stories. His authentic knowledge drew many disciples. “Master treated us like his sons,” says Narayanan Unni, 55. “After I debuted at 13, he bought me a set of clothes.”

Remadevi’s modest house in Tripunithura, 40 km north of Vechoor, has a treasure — a manual sruti box that used to set the pitch for Thankamani’s shows. “We no longer use it, but the sound is still fine,” she says. “A resonance from the past.”

The writer is a keen follower of Kerala’s performing arts.

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Printable version | Sep 22, 2021 9:26:53 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/history-and-culture/how-vechoor-thankamani-revived-thullal/article35605284.ece

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