Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair spoke to Sruti correspondent K.K. GOPALAKRISHNAN soon after he received the Kalidas Samman for 1993-94.
Did you study from any asan-s other than Pattikamtodi Ravunni Menon?
No. Even though Kavalappara Narayanan Nair and Kadamboor Gopalan Nair were teachers at Kalamandalam when I was a student there, I was trained by Ravunni Menon asan only.
Would you explain Pattikamtodi's training approach?
His life was totally dedicated to Kathakali. He spent all his time either on teaching students or performing. He had no fixed time schedules for teaching. Whenever he was free, he would teach us. Usually he did not sleep much and our early morning classes started whenever he woke up. It was so difficult during monsoon as we had to undergo the massages too. On several occasions, when we were deep in sleep and there was heavy downpour outside, he called us at 1 am or 2 am! We had to get ready in no time at all. Any delay or laxity would make him very angry and we would get enough for that; for, invariably, he handed out tough punishments.
The teaching-learning routine was like this. First we had to do the 'upanga' exercises to be able to execute movements of the eyebrows, neck, cheeks, etc., with effortless ease. These exercises would take about an hour and a half. Then there would be a break to allow us to do morning ablutions and chores. There would be massage upon resumption. Unlike today, he was very particular that only the concerned teacher should massage the students. This was to facilitate the teacher systematically to correct the physical drawbacks, if any, of the student with controlled pressures.
Massage for one would take about half an hour and he used to do it continuously for many of us, even though physically it was not good for him since the body heat of the students would get transferred to him. Till the whole massage session was over, all of us had continuously to do various kinds of exercises, before and after each one's massage. Massage would be for the three monsoon months and for another month after the Onam holidays. We had to do all the exercises daily. By the time the massages were over, it would be around 6.30. In the morning, of course. Then it was time for bath and breakfast. Breakfast always consisted of kanji (rice gruel). During the massage periods, he was particular that we should take ghee (clarified butter) mixed with the kanji. The next session, starting at eight o'clock and going until 12.30 pm, was devoted to cholliyattam, that is, the acting out of librettos. He would pay personal attention to each and everyone of us— towards this end, limiting the class to two at a time. He had special affection for those who excelled in cholliyattam. We would have a lunch break and our asan would take a small nap after the meal. The cholliyattam session would resume after lunch and we continued with it until dusk.
After a small break, the fourth and final session of the day would start around 7 pm. Along with him, all of us had to sit around a 'nilavilakku' (an oil-lamp with a stand). During this time, he would teach us 'rasa abhinaya', mudra-s (hand gestures), etc. This would be over by 8.30 or 9 pm.
After supper, in no time we would go to bed and fall asleep, exhausted from the day's activities. Asan was known for his tenacity as a teacher. During cholliyattam, we had to repeat each and every segment innumerable times, till we were able to perform it effortlessly to his satisfaction. When the massage sessions after the Onam holidays were over, during night, we had to do the cholliyattam, wearing the kireetam or headgear, or chuttithuni (a headband tied on the forehead as a frame for the make-up and to support the headgear); or carrying weapons like the sword, cudgel or bow and arrow. This was to get us used to the Ramankutty Nair supervising the rehearsal of the play Balivadham accoutrements of stage performance. It was during this time that we were trained with the concerned 'alarcha'-s (inarticulate vocal sounds made by kathi and thadi characters).
While we performed with him, he would keenly observe our abhinaya. On other occasions, he used to stand behind the drummers to watch us. He would be very upset if we made any mistakes and take us to task. Asan loved all his disciples like his own children, but always refrained from displaying it openly.
Did Vallathol introduce any changes of his own in Kathakali?
Yes. He insisted that we should know the complete and correct meaning of the librettos and that the mudra-s we showed should be appropriate and perfect. He made a few changes in some of them. It was he who introduced mudra-s for distinguishing between younger and older brothers, and younger and older sisters. He wrote several sloka-s for manodharma abhinaya; some of them are really good but some of them are not flexible enough to accommodate the range of gestures. Hanuman of Kalyana Saugandhikam, Lavanasura Vadham and Thoranayudham, the three principal vellathadi (whitebeard) characters in Kathakali, are among your masterpiece roles.
But you told me once that you were not specially trained for such characters. Can you enlighten us on this?
That is true. Ravunni Menon asan was of the opinion that the vellathadi of my cousin Kumaran Nair was better. Hence he did not train me specially for these roles, as he did my cousin. In those days Kavalappara Narayanan Nair was known for his Hanuman, and I did the role of Kusa or Lava in Lavanasura Vadham and one of the kinkara-s or benchmen (in this case, Ravana's) in Thoranayudham— and I used to watch him. My first ' adyavasanam' (hero/principal role) was in Idappally (in Kochi) as Bheema in Kalyana Saugandhikam with Kavalappara asan as Hanuman. All this helped me to know about the character of Hanuman.
What about your first performance as Hanuman?
I don't remember the date. It was at the Palikurup temple in Mannarkad (Palakkad district) I was Hanuman in the play Balivadham, a minor role. Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair and Kunju Nair were Bali and Sugreeva, respectively. By that time they were already famous and recognised as talented actors. Do you know about a special feature of that performance? Krishnan Nair and Kunju Nair were playing the chuvannathadi (red-beard) roles for the first time. Therefore, in a way, it was a debut performance for all three of us in a single performance. Maybe it was an auspicious day, for my Hanuman role was received very well.
When did you first perform a 'kathi' role?
My first kathi role was as Ghatotkacha (son of Bheema by Hidimba) in the play Bakavadham presented at Desamangalam (Trissoor). It was a minor role. I don't remember the date. Also I don't remember when and where I had first performed an adyavasanam in kathi vesham.
Have you ever performed a chuvannathadi role?
Yes, I have, once! As Sugreeva in Balivadham. Bali's role was played by the late chenda maestro Krishnankutty Poduval.
Any female character?
On very few occasions I have acted in female roles too. My first female role was as one of the wives of Krishna in Subhadraharanam, when I was about 15 years old. After that, during the earlier years of my career, I have on a few occasions acted as Lalitha in Kirmeeravadham. Then a few years ago, I was more or less forced to play Lalitha again by some bigwigs.
As an artist well-known for playing principal characters in kathi and vellathadi, did you feel comfortable in such roles?
I know, that I am not cut out for some types of roles. However, I have always respected the feelings of learned members of the audience and have responded positively to their requests or suggestions. I have never believed I was born to play only certain types of roles.