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Redefining the nayika


Kottakkal Sivaraman quietly redefined and reinterpreted the role of the nayika in Kathakali.

THINKING ACTOR: Kottakkal Sivaraman

For centuries, Kathakali has been stamped as a male bastion, both by artistes and connoisseurs alike. Such traditional readings would pale into insignificance when one looks closely into the textual formations of this classical dance theatre and its idea of character. Yet those female roles like Damayanthi, Mohini, Malini/Draupadi and Chitralekha remained almost inanimate objects on stage till Kottakkal Sivaraman made a bold attempt to redefine them in visual terms. His subtle yet silent rebellion began in the 1960's and is not finished yet. You ask him how and why he undertook such a difficult mission. The septuagenarian artiste will come up with umpteen explanations, arguments and counter-questions.


Karalmanna village in Palakkad district, where Sivaraman was born and brought up, is still well known for its artistic and cultural moorings. Being the nephew of Vazhenkada Kunju Nair, Sivaraman was conversant with the stage and green-room of Kathakali, even as a child. He later joined the P.S.V. Natyasanghom, Kottakkal, to receive lessons in Kathakali under his uncle. Sivaraman recalls, "Ammaman expected a lot from me. I'd to repeat the cholliyattams of the major male roles a number of times since I dithered incessantly. It took time for him to learn that my space in Kathakali was predestined."

After the customary arangettam, Sivaraman was hobnobbing with the stage and green-room of Kathakali performances in temple-festivals. Suddenly an opportunity to do the role of Mohini in Rugmangadacharitam came his way. Persuaded by none other than his uncle, Vazhenkada Kunju Nair, Sivaraman accompanied the Kalamandalam Kathakali troupe to Mumbai as a substitute for Kalamandalam Balakrishnan Nair, then famous for his female roles.

The legendary actor, Thakazhi Kunju Kurup was his hero, king Rugmangada, on stage. Sivaraman took up that role as a challenge. The rest, as the cliché goes, is history.

Sivarman's female roles mesmerised the audience. His was a meteoric rise to stardom. Once established on stage, Sivaraman decided to question the conventional traits of sentimental nayikas such as Damayanthi, Mohini, Malini and Chitralekha.

Studying the texts

He thoroughly read the Kathakali texts and the Kavyas that dealt with the epic heroines. Finding that each of them had an identity and a voice different from the ritualistic tones practised on stage, Sivaraman redefined and reinterpreted the acting manuals.

He explored the psyche of Damayanthi and proved on stage that she was bold, rational and at times insurmountable. Caught between the will to fulfil her mission of intercepting the Ekadeshivratham of king Rugmangada and an infinite affection towards Dharmangada, Sivaraman's portrayal of Mohini underlines his mastery over the nuances of histrionics. As Kunthi in a relatively new play `Karnashapadhom,' he is grief personified in front of Karna in a dramatic encounter.

However, one must remember that his interpretations and re-interpretations of the female roles in Kathakali were well within its male-dictated aesthetics.

Sivaraman never questions the tenets of `male-gaze' as far as female characterisations were concerned. Yet his approach to and treatment of the leading nayikas were unprecedented in the history of Kathakali.

He has won countless awards and accolades in recognition of his enviable artistry. The Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi honoured him with awards several years back. Kerala Kalamandalam recently announced its first Kalaratnam Puraskar to Kottackal Sivaraman.

From Thakazhi Kunju Kurup to Kalamandalam Balasubramaniyan, he has been on stage as the nayika of six generation of artistes.

How does he judge himself after a life marked by triumphs and tribulations.

"I've often wondered who am I and what do I epitomize. In the final analysis I am nothing but a few drops of tears."

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