As a Kathakali artiste, Nelliyode Vasudevan Namboothiri’s big shining eyes were his greatest asset. He knew it even as a studentso did his guru Vazhenkada Kunchu Nair. Both of them worked towards turning this to his advantage.
By the early 1960s, the audience began to notice how Nelliyode lent a touch of humour to even negative and powerful characters. With face painted primarily in red or black and wearing large headgear, the youngster entertained audiences during night-long shows.
Nelliyode was just out of teens when he played Bali at a temple festival in his guru’s native Vazhenkada in north-central Kerala, sporting a stylised crimson beard with broad white paper cut at the edges pasted on his cheeks. The chuvanna taadi (red beard) drew appreciation and, eventually, he gained popularity portraying characters with it.
A flair for improvisation based on his deep reading added layers to the dancer’s portrayal of different characters such as Bali, Sugriva, Dusshasana, Trigarta and Narakasura. Simultaneously, he lent novelty to his presentation of demonesses such as Shurpanakha, Putana, Lankalakshmi and Nakratundi.
Nelliyode created masterpieces with his performance of certain male characters like Sudama ( Kuchelavrittam ) and Asari ( Bakavadham ) in semi-realistic make-up. His craft was one of constant innovation over the grammatical framework of Kathakali’s Kalluvazhi school, which was majorly refined by Kunchu Nair’s tutor Pattikamthodi Ravunni Menon (1880-1948).
Nelliyode’s career, spanning six decades, came to an end this month when he was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer.
Born into the Nelliyode family of priests at Cheranallur in Ernakulam district, the dancer had made Thiruvananthapuram his home from 1975, after landing a Kathakali instructor’s job at the Government Central High School there, from where he retired after 20 years.
That apart, Nelliyode remained an independent performer, often sharing a platform with artistes from Travancore to Malabar upward and across generations. He could easily mingle with practitioners of Kathakali’s southern style even though elaborate choreography was at the core of his training at Natyasanghom and Kalamandalam in the north. “Increasing interactions between artistes belonging to the two systems has standardised Kathakali movements,” he said. “The process has its pros and cons.”
Nelliyode’s experiments raised the curiosity of critics. Some of them admitted they never knew chuvanna taadi characters had such potential for labyrinthine narrations. Partly, the tales came as recapitulation, inspired by the nirvahanam technique employed in Koodiyattam. Nelliyode was one of those rare Kathakali mavens who keenly followed the ancient Sanskrit theatre.
The 20th-century chuvanna tadi icons, Vellinezhi Nanu Nair and Champakulam Pachu Pillai, inspired Nelliyode. “Their approach to the art contrasted fascinatingly. I imbibed a lot by observing them, but seldom imitated their mannerisms,” he said. Nelliyode, known for his habit of watching Kathakali from the greenroom, also enjoyed modern plays and poetry. “They give us ideas. And an attitude to associate with contemporary Kathakali productions.”
Over the years, Nelliyode gained the wisdom to sometimes infuse a subtle personal touch to his gestural dialogues. Recalls Kalamandalam Balasubrahmanian, who acted as Krishna opposite Nelliyode as Kuchela early this year at a performance, “ He asked me, ‘Will we meet again?’ Both of us got emotional.”
Recipient of the Sangeet Natak Akademi award and Kathakali Puraskaram, Nelliyode said, “You learn no art for mere livelihood. One thrives on passion.”
The writer is a keen follower of Kerala’s performing arts.