THE mellifluous elaboration of the raga Padi creates a new mood for the Kathakali connoisseurs in the front row. This slowly soothes away the midnight's pressure on their eyelids.
The very sight of the tip of the kiritam (head-gear) of the character in kathi (knife) make-up brings a special and sudden discipline among the audience. The austere Kathakali stage gradually takes on a royal aura. It may be a Duryodhana, Ravana or Keechaka of Hindu mythology. Whatever may be the characters, this uniqueness in creating a vibrant stage atmosphere goes along with Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair, the celebrated Kathakali exponent.
As a performer, Ramankutty Nair is hailed for his perfection in cholliyattom (acting of librettos to set choreography). With 11 years of strenuous training under the legendary maestro Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon, it was only a matter of time before Ramankutty Nair became a flawless performer.
It is an experience to follow his abhinaya (acting) or mimetic interpretation where the relatively small palms execute exemplary perfection to gestures and short legs facilitate the poetic circular movements. Effortlessness in performances is one of his acclaimed hallmarks, thanks to the rigorous training that he had undergone six decades back.
His perfect sense of tala (rhythm) is another strong point. Known for his fidelity to the aesthetic and the traditional in Kathakali, his every stage movement, whether it is a minute one or one of fast tempo, underlines the great theory of the kalluvazhi tradition (perfected by Pattikkamthodi). The dignified movements of every limb of the actor are in tune with the tala.
Ramankutty Nair is mostly associated with characters representing the rajo guna (egoistic qualities) with kathi (knife) make-up. These characters are arrogant and evil but have a high degree of valour. Ravana, Duryodhana, Keechaka, Narakasura, Sisupala come in this category. His Hanuman in "Kalyanasoughandhigam", "Thoranayudham" and "Lavanasuravadham" are also among his best characterisations. His portrayal during the last three to four decades has given these characters a vibrant dimension in the minds of theatre aficionados. Though he is not at ease with the pacha (green) type characters, which depict the satwik (good) qualities, the technicalised hero characters of Kottayam stories (especially Dharmaputhra in "Kirmeeravadham") are also his forte.
Interestingly, all his celebrated roles are known for their harmonious interaction with percussion instruments, especially the chenda. His long-term association with late maestro Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Poduval was a crucial factor in this. Poduval with his unparalleled talent on the chenda enhanced Ramankutty Nair's characters.
Nair and Poduval teamed up with maddalam maestro Appukutty Poduval. The performance of these masters to the vocal music of another stalwart, the late Neelakandan Nambeesan, evokes deep nostalgia.
In the story "Thoranayudham", during Hanuman's journey to Lanka over the ocean, based on the poetic descriptions in the Ramayana, Nair has made new choreographs of manodharma (power of imagination). His contributions to the aaharya (costumes) and manodharma abhinaya of Parasurama in "Seethaswayamvaram" require a special reference.
The aaharya aspect which he had changed, based on the Ravi Varma paintings, was initially frowned upon by some critics. Nevertheless, poet Vallathol Narayana Menon endorsed it after due consultations with scholars of the period like Parikshit Thampuran of Kochi. Like fuel to fire, the resultant controversy too added to the glamour of Ramankutty Nair's Parasuraman.
At Kaduthurithi, a village in Kerala, for Kalamandalam's four days' programme, when "Seethaswayamvaram" was performed on the second day with his Parasurama, the throng demanded encore and the organisers were compelled to schedule the same story for the remaining two days too. Finally, it resulted in Vallathol fixing an additional fee for staging of Nair's Parasuraman!
To close associates, Ramankutty Nair is a witty person and chatting with him is great fun, especially when he talks of his experience. Still he always maintains an inherent seriousness. One can surprisingly perceive in his personality the instinct valour and sense of rhythm conspicuous in the sthayi (the dominant emotion) of his celebrated kathi characters. These create an impression of a tough master not easily approachable.
During his service at the Kalamandalam, which spanned nearly four decades, his mere presence on the campus was enough to discipline the inmates. Almost all the alumni of the Kalamandalam in Kathakali acting during 1948-1985 periods trained under him. As a teacher, he was tough and a traditionalist to the core.
He is still strict with his accompanying artists, whether actors, musicians or percussionists, during performances. Whatever the character or the context of the story, he reacts sharply when accompanists make any errors.
"There is a rule and style for stories of techniques taught in the kalari. I cannot tolerate any indifference. My reactions may be rude. They are automatic and beyond my control. I am from that old school trained by none other than the great Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon asan himself," is his explanation for this well-known and controversial tenacity.
In 1985, at the age of 60 and peak of his illustrious artistic life, he retired from the Kerala Kalamandalam from the post of the Principal as warranted by Government norms, putting an end to his historical "Kalamandalam life" started at the tender age of 13. Nevertheless, he is still in his performance world though not so active with effervescent roles since a few years due to advanced age.
Several awards and honours, including the Central Sangeet Natak Akademy award, Kalidas Samman of the M.P. Government and first award for Kathakali of the Government of Kerala (2000) came in search of him.
He is settled in Adakkaputhur of Vellinezhi, an interior village in Palakkad district of Kerala that amazingly produced most of the Kathakali maestros of Kalluvazhi tradition.