The Taut and the Untaught
Kalamandalam Vasu Pisharody’s surely successful but possibly unintentional bid to bind certain techniques and aesthetics of Koodiyattam with Kathakali merits massive research
For many who have been exposed to Koodiyattam and Kathakali in what little or sufficient doses, one essential point of distinction between the two art-forms is their use of space. The Sanskrit theatre employs a smaller area on the stage, while the Kerala dance-drama is relatively lavish in this aspect — be it with the legworks or the profile of hand gestures. Kalamandalam Vasu Pisharody poses a fascinating puzzle to this generally accepted notion.
As an artiste in the Kathakali circuit for half a century now, Pisharody has gained reputation for his various faculties. Yet, scholars or buffs rarely seem to have thrown deserving light on the master’s rare and historic streak: building a unique track bridging his art with Koodiyattam in the latter half of the 20th century.
Before unveiling more about the matter, let us try to put things in perspective. To begin with, it would be terribly unwise to presume that the two art-forms have been water-tight compartments when it comes to techniques and aesthetics which have lent them individuality. After all, Koodiyattam has been a forerunner of Kathakali which took birth in the 17th century — and, hence, owes a clear degree of parenthood to the ancient drama.
Two, the Kaplingadan style of Kathakalli does retain a visible hangover of the ethos of Koodiyattam. Even as its fountainhead Narayanan Namboodiri hailed from a village called Nedumpura close to the banks of the Bharatapuzha in central Kerala, the style he synthesized in the late 18th century saw its branches spreading across Travancore down south. This was also courtesy the efforts of later-year masters who imbibed its spirit from the original collaboration between Kaplingadu Namboodiri and Maharaja Karthika Tirunal of Thiruvananthapuram, where the former spent the autumn of his life.
Cut to 1958, when a Pisharody-caste boy called Vasu joined a small-time Kathakali school in Ottapalam — not far from his native Kongad, also in Palakkad district of nascent Kerala in independent India. At Kerala Kalalayam off the scenic small town, Balakrishnan Nair taught him the basics of the art. A year later, he began receiving higher studies — mostly under Vazhenkada Kunchu Nair, initially at PSV Natyasangham in Kottakkal up north of Malabar and later at Kalamandalam when his guru joined the institution at Cheruthuruthy near Shoranur.
True, Pisharody also received advanced grooming from Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair — known for his precision-centric stage conduct. As for Kunchu Nair, one can safely presume (from his written works and Kathakali video clips) that the maestro was virtually obsessed with one concept: restraint. More so, in character portrayal, which was subtle and devoid of extravagance.
As for Kunchu Nair, one can safely presume (from his written works and Kathakali video clips) that the maestro was virtually obsessed with one concept: restraint.
So, can Pisharody be summarized as a happy blend of Kunchu Nair’s crystal-clear thoughts and Ramankutty Nair’s squeaky-clean mudras? Not exactly. For, the artiste, now hitting 70 years of age, seems to have embellished and reworked a lot on the prime faculties of the two gurus.
At no point in his career has Pisharody been either hailed or criticized for imitating masters. In fact, he never sought to mimic anybody right from his teenage. As much as about his positives, the artiste always knew his limitations as well. That prudence ensured that Pisharody would not even remotely ape a master who was his senior or contemporary.
A video clip of Vasu Pisharody in Nalacharitham Moonnam Divasam
Coming to his body language, one cannot be sure if its apparent closeness to Koodiyattam had something to do with Pisharody’s three-and-a-half-decade-old stint (as a student and then as a tutor) in Kalamandalam, which also gives training in the Sanskrit theatre. True, it was customary before his entry to Kalamandalam campus for Koodiyattam masters do train Kathakali students in eye exercises, but usually that is the end of it all for the takers. Kathakali students and teachers in Kalamandalam rarely made/make efforts to learn the physical dynamics of Koodiyattam, perhaps apprehending an uneasy marriage of the two cultures.
But then Pisharody has typically been research-oriented in his approach to the arts. Curiosity about a wide range of the arts has been a defining feature of his mindset. As somebody who searches for qualities in allied fields of excellence, the adaptable elements of Koodiyattam would not have escaped Pisharody’s attention.
Kathakali students and teachers in Kalamandalam rarely made/make efforts to learn the physical dynamics of Koodiyattam, perhaps apprehending an uneasy marriage of the two cultures.
Even so, he has essentially been an exponent of Kathakali’s Kalluvazhi style, which generally banks itself on body power than mental brilliance. That is what makes Pisharody’s movements contrasting with the Kaplingadan School. For, the Thekkan style, as it has come to be known going by the (southern) region where its popularity eventually spread, has its key characters using physical force (vaayu, as the word has been coined in both the art-forms) in a way that is least like the Kalluvazhi School that was built up in the early 20th century by Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon, the teacher of Kunchu Nair and Ramankutty Nair among others. In other words, Pisharody’s Koodiyattam touch is not at all remindful of the way, say, of Madavoor Vasudevan Nair. The octogenarian Kaplingadan stylist’s core conduct is defined by the surfing quality of his mudras and naturalistic touch to certain facial emoting (overall akin to a Koodiyattam maven like Ammannur Madhava Chakyar) vis-à-vis Pisharody’s ploughing-feel gestures and stylized abhinaya.
That is what makes Pisharody’s stage conduct special. Clearly, it was not something he imbibed wholly from the Kathakali classroom. The spring in his gait is typical of his family in their semi-hilly village — it is one feature of his younger brother, maddalam drummer Kongad Sukumaran, and of (late) cousin Vijayan, a frontline timila artiste.
If economy of space is integral to Pisharody’s mudras and overall movements, it is what makes his body language alluringly taut. They keep sending a ‘brimming with energy’ message, which is particularly striking for the viewer from the start till the end. Even when the characters he handles showcase a whole range of Kathakali’s assets, Pisharody sticks to his basic conviction — and practice — of loading every mudra and movement with the requisite (make-believe) pressure that stretches from his toe up till the head. What’s more, his eyes have an exceptional habit of travelling vertically up (mostly to depict wistfulness or helplessness). That is where Pisharody-style aesthetics comes closest to that of Koodiyattam, where the audience is presumed small and scooped-up — and not vast and distant.
In a way, the two masters and their varied approaches to their art have helped the Kalluvazhi School of Kathakali maintain a beautiful balance between a whole range of elements.
Creditably, even as oil lamps and petromax lights gave way to electric bulbs and even spotlights on the stage, Pisharody’s characters weren’t tempted to use broader space. True, his anti-hero Katthi veshams would be more liberal in movements compared to his pachcha; yet they retained a rare charm of measured-ness within a self-dictated space frame.
Possibly, Pisharody has found in this self-acquired tightness a niche in the field where facial emoting and a relatively free-flowing body language have been the forte of a bigger star: Kalamandalam Gopi. In a way, the two masters and their varied approaches to their art have helped the Kalluvazhi School of Kathakali maintain a beautiful balance between a whole range of elements.
A handful of Pisharody students do display pleasant traces of their guru when it comes of use of the body — and traits of character presentation. But then as time moves, the art also changes — and the intelligent among them marry the dynamics of the present while imbibing energy from their past.
In any case, Pisharody is himself a master of reinvention. Having come back to the dais in early 2009 after a four-year bout with ill-health, the actor-dancer has been staging a different post-script to his own career.
As Kathakali is poised to enter a new chapter what with a new generation cropping up, future researchers would find a major scope for study on Vasu Pisharody’s contributions to Kathakali as a master of both body and mind. After all, not always has the art been enriched with artistes who have struck a magnificent balance between the two faculties.