Your Kathakali career is nearing six-and-a-half decades. How did it all start?
Well, I was born on the outskirts of a small town that has been a beehive of cultural activity; Cherpulassery, now in Palakkad district. Ours was a lower middle-class family; we members had a fair degree of love for the local heritage. Only I turned out to be an artiste, though.
So you were exposed to classical arts even as a child?
Definitely. The erstwhile Valluvanad, my native belt, has nourished many arts, chiefly Kathakali. Several temples in our region would host this dance-theatre during annual festivals. My parents would take us children to such night-long shows in nearby Ayyappankavu shrine and, a little away, Tirumullappilly temple at Karalmanna. Frankly, the greenroom used to enchant me more than the stage.
That experience led you to learning Kathakali?
Yes. It happened after my father Pulassery Raman Nair struggled to meet the expenses at school beyond my class seven. He ran a small restaurant in our town, while we also did farming that gave us just about the necessary rice and vegetables. Our mother, Kizhakkepatt Janaki Amma, was busy with household chores like most Kerala village woman of that time.
By when I was into early teenage, we faced a financial setback. I expressed my wish to learn Kathakali. The elders agreed.
And that’s how you joined Sadanam Kathakali Akademi?
True. I first tried to join PSV Natyasangham in Kottakkal, 50 km northwest of my place. Its principal, Vazhenkada Kunchu Nair, directed me to Kalamandalam as a “better choice”. On reaching that school in Cheruthuruthy (south of Shoranur), tutor Padmanabhan Nair informed me that classes for the new batch had just started.
As I remained listless, we in the family learned that a nascent Sadanam Akademi was inducting Kathakali students. The (1953-founded) institution also ran a teacher’s training course which my elder sister K Vishalakshi was doing at its campus in Peroor, 25 km east of our house. She took me to Sadanam near Pathirippala. In 1956, ahead of the monsoon.
Was the enrolment smooth?
More or less. A five-member panel that interviewed me asked if I can endure the pain involved in Kathakali training. I said ‘yes’ even as one of them cautioned me that I would be massaged to pulp. I was made to show up in green facial makeup; they expressed satisfaction. I got in.
Who were your gurus?
Chiefly Thekkinkattil Ramunni Nair and, subsequently, Keezhpadam Kumaran Nair. Both of them senior disciples of legendary Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon (1880-1948) who effectively refined the Kalluvazhi style that defines mainstream Kathakali. Initially, our batch was trained under two young gurus who were on a break from Natyasangham: Krishnankutty Nair and Sankaranarayanan Embranthiri. In between, Koodiyattam icon Mani Madhava Chakyar trained us in eye exercises.
We were seven boys learning Vesham(acting). Besides me, one of them rose in the field: Kattassery Ramankutty of Thichoor near Pattambi.
On the auspicious day of Ashtamirohini in 1957, around the post-rain Malayalam month of Chingam. I had it with Sambhu Embranthiri, who later went to Kottakkal when his gurus returned to Natyasangham. The story was Kalyanasougandhikam. I was Krishnan and he was Dharmaputrar.
You later gained eminence in a whole range of Veshams (characters), right?
By the grace of god and my teachers. Sadanam, during my student days, was steeped in Gandhian values as its founder K Kumaran was a freedom fighter too. He believed in self-reliance; we were trained in social activities such as pottery, soap-making, carpentry, and agriculture. They broadened my vision about life and, perhaps, led me to a variety of Kathakali roles too. Outside of stage, I chip in with all kinds of small-time assignments in our house- cooking, electrical work, plumbing etc.
Do you think the art world has treated you well for your capability?
Overall, yes. Audiences across the state appreciate my style. I perform outside of Kerala and abroad as well. I have taught, though not for long, in Kalamandalam, Kalanilayam (Irinjalakuda) and Kala Mandir (Patna) besides at Sadanam. The Sangeet Natak Akademi and Kalamandalam honoured me; so did several other institutions- big and small.
I live in Irinjalakuda (south of Thrissur) with my family: wife, son, daughter-in-law and their twin boys. Kathakali season is picking up now after 20 months of Covid-19 fear. Things seem returning to normalcy.