Conversation with a Padma Bhushan - Part 1
Translated from Malayalam by - Achuthan T. K.
Madavoor Vasudevan Nair is counted among the leading Kathakali artists today. The 82-year-old veteran was this year (2011, when the interview took place) honoured with the Padma Bhushan, one of the highest civilian awards conferred by the government of India. This five-part video interview, originally in Malayalam by Sreechitran MJ and M B Sunil Kumar of Kathakali.info, was conducted on May 20, 2011, at Madavoor's house near Kollam in Kerala.
Among the different styles of kathakali, the Kaplingadan school is centuries old and occupies a prominent place. It has evolved into what is today widely referred to as the "Thekkan kalari" or Southern school. Madavoor Asan is the numero uno of this contemporary style.
Asan, let us start from your teacher, the late Chengannoor Raman Pillai. Can you share with us your early experiences, the experience of training under Chengannoor in your formative years?
Initial training is of utmost importance in any style of Kathakali. Guru Chengannoor was no different. To mould the disciple's body is a guru's first task. This constitutes various exercises to gain full control over the body. It's an extremely ardous process, but very useful. A considerable amount of time is spent on this. Though some mudras (hand gestures) and bhava (aesthetic facial expressions) are taught at the time, the emphasis is on gaining full control of the body. The results are evident in our performances.. our stances and profiles don't appear awkward or caricaturish on the stage; it is because the body has been moulded with a lot of effort in the early days. Without that our performances will appear graceless and cannot not impress viewers. This discipline is ingrained with the different types of characters in mind -- as the technique of carrying oneself varies according to the classification of roles such as minukku (females and saints), pacha (regal and virtuous characters), kathi (regal characters but with a villanous streak) or thadi (cruel or unsophisticated in general). The disciple must be able to control the force at body centers depending upon the nature of the role he performs. It is the guru's job to ensure that his disciple gains this crucial control. There are prescribed rules on how to show a mudra or a dance movement depending on the nature of the character.
You had other asans before Chengannoor..
My first guru was Madavoor Parameswaran Pillai. He was a proponent of the Southern style. In those days we considered Chengannoor as north. The concept of northern Malabar and southern Travancore didn't exist then. Parameswaran Pillai Asan, known as Kochasan, was of great local renown. He ran a Kaliyogam (a Kathakali troupe) and was a learned man.
And what was his style? As we know the South school has many variations, Kidangoor for instance..
Yes, there are many styles. Kochasan's style was what has today come to be known as the Chathannoor style. That was my initial training. He was very versatile.. he performed, sang, played the drums, and was proficient in all the established attams (descriptive performances). I stayed with him for three years.
Your arangettam (stage debut) was during that period?
Yes, yes. My first performance was in my sixth month of training.
I used to stay in asan's house. The performnace was at the nearby Siva temple called Puliyottukunnu. It was Uttaraswayamvaram. He wanted to see both male and female roles; so I appeared as Duryodhana's wife Bhanumathi in Scene One. Then quickly changed the makeup and put on the Chutti (the facial makeup that takes about a couple of hours to apply) and appeared as Prince Uttaran in the same story. Those days Uttaran was considered a second-tier role. In the next performance I was given the role of Krishna in Duryodhanavadham (a comparatively important character). That was the convention those days.. the student's progression was fast. I impressed the audience with a lot of minor and mid-level roles during those three years.
Guru Chengannoor used to say that it is the disciple who is more important than the teacher. He said a teacher's role is only to pick up a diamond in the rough and polish it.
So in six months you could do a prominent role such as Uttaran..
And as Krishnan in Duryodhanavdham. I got a gift that day which didn't go well with the guy who played Duryodhana in the Doothu (mediation) scene. Even in those days people liked me. Guru Chengannoor used to say that it is the disciple who is more important than the teacher. He said a teacher's role is only to pick up a diamond in the rough and polish it. If it were a stone it wouldn't shine no matter what you do. That's why the quality of the student is more important. The teacher is indeed lucky to get a gem of a student. Our innate goodness, the brain.. all this is the same as the shine of the diamond.
Let's go back to your first guru, the initial training in the Southern style..
That style was imperfect .. the body's force was not expended for the best explication of the role. When it came to such matters, this Kaplingadan style that Guru Chengannoor and others followed was more precise. Our style was somewhat rustic.
Was it the same training regimen those days?
Yes. All our schools start very early in the morning, as with training for the martial arts of Kalaripayattu. The strict dawn regimen was fixed for anything requiring the rigours of physical effort. That was the only suitable time... everything still and silent, an appropriate atmosphere. You get that only in the mornings. Everyone gets up by 3 or 3.30 AM. Then the practices go on well after sunrise, until 8 AM.
Was there training in the art of expression too? Such as facial movements, eye exercises etc?
They were practised at specific times of the day. At a guru's home the day started with eye exercises. One would wake up, sit on a mat and do eye exercises, eyebrow movements and neck exercises. When I stayed with Chengannoor asan the day started with eye exercises, then shaping the body. At that time, sitting on a mat and performing eye training was usually the first exercise of the day. But in the kalari (the school), mornings were for different types of jumps; eye exercises came only in the evenings.
I used to hardly sweat before that. But once Chengannoor's training started I used to sweat very easily.
Can you explain how you ended up as Chengannoor Asan's disciple?
That is a long story. We were living far away. My elder brother, the late Divakaran Nair, was a Sanskrit student and used to tell me stories from the epics. I started watching Kathakali when I was ten, thanks to my brother. Those days there was another artist in Kottaram (Padmanabhapuram Palace in Thiruvanathapuram), a distant relative of ours named Thuravoor Madhavan Pillai, who was senior to Chengannoor. So we went to Kottaram, managed to gain entry and bribed five rupees to give a demonstration of Purappad at the Palace kalari. Then we met my uncle Thuravoor, whom Chengannoor held in great esteem, and asked if he could recommend that the latter accept me as his student. Our mission was successful and I was asked to join Chengannoor in the monsoon. (Traditionally, monsoon is the training period as summers are packed with performances.) We returned home and in due course I left for Changannoor's home, with my brother accompanying me to drop me off. In those days there were few transport facilities and we set off with packed lunches. Upon reaching asan’s house, we were dismayed to find that Chengannoor Asan was going to another place for training and had asked me to join him there. He said he would write to us when we were to come there. Somehow Asan's wife had taken a liking to me. When Asan was leaving for the new kalari she asked him about me but Chengannoor was dismissive. But it was she who told him that I looked promising, and thus prevailed over Asan. Thanks to her, we finally got his letter and my brother and I left for a place called Thoovara near Adoor. My brother arranged for me to stay at a small teashop there. Thus began my training.
I used to hardly sweat before that. But once Chengannoor's training started I used to sweat very easily. That was because the technically sound training regimen under him infused forces at the right places of the body.
Please tell us the difference in the training methods of Chengannoor and your first guru?
There isn't much to say.. training regimen are similar everywhere. But the discipline in the training was lacking in these parts. Artists used to perform a lot and it was a question of stage experience rather than disciplined training. Thereby the Kaplingadan school in the South lost a lot of its past practices and tradition. Lost its roots. But in North Kerala the pure training methods were preserved and practised. There evolved a conducive establishment and foundation to support and preserve its purity.
Let's come back to this topic later..
That's what I was saying about training. I realised the gravity and seriousness of the training regimen only after I came under Chengannoor.
Was Chengannoor a taskmaster? Were his methods of punishment brutal?
Chengannoor never beat anyone. In fact none of my teachers have punished me. Neither have I caned my students. We are an exception to those who say that corporal punishment is a part of training. I was trained without the cane.
There is a theory that punishment is very much a part of training in art forms such as Kathakali. You don't agree?
It's not right. You don't need punishment in any school. After 12 years you should beat no one, whether they’re your children or your students. By then they can think by themselves and unnecessary punishment will hurt them psychologically. No need for caning if the student is good and worthy. If not, caning him will only make him curse you and drive him away. Better not to make more trouble. This is due to the guru's impatience. The teacher starts punishing just to give vent to his anger but justifies it by claiming it is for the student's good. No one has beaten me. I am talking from my experience. Both my gurus -- Parameswaran Pillai and Chengannoor -- never caned me. Nor have I done that to my students. And they are doing fine now. So am I. So what's the harm in teaching without corporal punishment? Of course there will be people who claim that they made good because the asan wielded his cane. They would have made good anyway if they had the talent. Unnecessary caning is due to guru's anger. Caning is an old system, right from elementary school days.
Someone told me to hit one's own head when one is angry. Then the anger will go away and there won't be a need to cane the student.
Let's move on to Chengannoor's training system, especially the main roles. We would like to know its structure. Were the four Kottayam stories taught?
Of course Kottayam stories are the most important. All four of them. They were taught in detail and in full.
Afer that, were other important dramas such as Rugmineeswayamvaram taught in kalari?
Yes, certainly Rugmineeswayamvaram. That's how you start with the roles of Krishna, and then Rugmini in your early years. These roles have structural importance. Then come secondary and tertiary roles such as Sisupala.
Is Jarasandhan in Rajasooyam, a kathi character, taught?
Not much in kalari.
And characters such as Banan?
Banan is done in kalari. All verses of Jarasandha are acted out. But attams or descriptive sequences are only told to us. Then it's up to you study and discover its form or evolve your own narrative. There is some creative liberty here. But one must be judicious; if not it will misfire.
How about reading the epics, listening to the stories.. how were these accomplished?
Epics were available to me. Kunjukuttan Thampuran's Mahabaratam in three volumes -- now they come in seven -- was available at Asan's house. I read that daily.. have read it two or three times.
We must convey what is in the epics without sacrificing the poet's ideas. We must do justice to both.
Was Chengannoor asaan insistent on this?
Yes. And he also remembered the context. That needs practice. A Kathakali actor won't be complete unless he knows the epics and the poets. He must know what the poet has said, as well as what the epics have said. We can err by simply following the epics. The poet or the dramatist may have taken creative freedom. In such cases we must not contradict the poet. We must convey what is in the epics without sacrificing the poet's ideas. We must do justice to both.
Let's go back to that era. What were the roles you acted out the most in your early years?
During my initial years, even when I was with Guru Parameswaran Pillai, I used to don the roles of Krishna in Rajasooyam, Kamsavadham and Duryodhanavadham; and Jayanthan. Then female roles, even Lalita in Narakasuravadham. I used to do secondary or even leading female roles.
KPS Menon singles out your female roles in his book.
There was a time when I did mainly female roles. Me and Karunankaran Nair (the late Kudamaloor Karunakaran Nair) were the only two who did female roles in those days after Mankombu Sivasankara Pillai took up dance and left the Kathakali arena. He went to Madras. So it was just the two of us, and Balakrishnan Nair in Malabar, from Ottapalam -- he used to act with Ramankutty Nair. But Balakrishnan Nair didn't have the femininity that the two of us displayed. He had an oval, aquiline face. We were more recognised on stage while he was more known for cholliyattam (structural perfection). That was the era of just we three actors who did female roles. Then came Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair who became famous for portraying Poothana. Krishnan Nair and I used to do Usha and Chithralekha, or the other way round. Then -- all this was while we were touring with Chengannoor Asan -- as Dharmangadan in Rugmangathacharitam innumerable times. Krishnan Nair, Karunankaran Nair and me in Rugmangathacharitam. This would be followed by Chengannoor Asan's Rajasooyam. And Dharmangada would become Krishna there. This went on for a long time, probably ten years. Cherthala Kuttappa Kurup was the vocalist, a very great musician.
Kottakkal Sivaraman and the others came later..
Sivaraman was some 7-8 years junior to me. It was a big difference. When Chirakkara Madhavan Kutty and Sivaraman came into prominence, I withdrew. By then my face had become a bit longer and I felt I didn't look good enough in female roles. My fans wouldn't give up, but I withdrew myself. By then these two had started excelling.
Instinctively, I turned to the back of the auditorium to see where the ball has fallen, only to realise immediately that there was no real ball !
During your early days you witnessed the rise of Krishnan Nair..
Of course. I first saw Krishnan Nair when I was 15 or 16. There was a one-month training session by Kunjan Panicker asaan -- the same Kurichi Kunjan Panicker famous for his role of Hamsa the swan in Nalacharitam Part One -- for some three or four of us. (Incidentally, he gave me this beak, used in hamsam's make-up. He had used it for many years.) He taught a few of us, including Oyoor Kochu Govinda Pillai and me. A ticketed Kathakali performance was organised in Chathannoor in honour of Kunjan Panicker Asan. Ticketed programmes were common those days. This training and the performance were organised for the benefit of a Japanese lady named Setako. I met Krishnan Nair for the first time there. Krishnan Nair did the roles of Poothana and then Roudra Bheeman in Duryodhanavadham, with Chengannoor Asan as Duryodhanan, Champakkulam Pachu Pillai as Dussasanan and Kudamaloor as Panchali. I had no role that day.. I was a junior. I was sitting in the front row with the Japanese lady and her husband. Poothana bewitched the audience. Krishnan Nair's acting prowess was so mesmerising that the women present didn't dare look at the Poothana in her bewitching form Lalitha.
I vividly recall his "Panthadi" (a descriptive passage where the women play with ball to amuse themselves. No real ball is used by the actor but he creates a world of make believe). He shows the women of Gokulam playing ball and unexpectedly throws it. With his wide open expressive eyes, Krishnan Nair showed the ball rising up and falling off far away in the horizon. Instinctively, I turned to the back of the auditorium to see where the ball has fallen, only to realise immediately that there was no real ball.. it was all consummate acting. To my astonishment I found that everyone among the audience had their faces turned back to the rear of the hall -- I was not the only one taken in by his histrionics. That was Krishnan Nair! And that was my first exposure to him.
(To be continued)