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Icon of Mathoor Kalari


Veteran Kathakali artiste Mathoor Govindankutty keeps the flag of the Mathoor Kalari flying high.

Sterling actor: Mathoor Govindankutty.

Until the early decades of the 20th century, Kathakali had sustained a host of regional idioms. K.P.S. Menon's repository of Kathakali, ‘Kathakalirangam,' notes various styles such as Thakazhi, Mathoor, Kidangoor, Kadathanadan, Kalladikkodan, Kaplingadan, Kavungal and Kalluvazhi. The Mathoor Kalari, rooted in the coastal belt of Kuttanad, once boasted several top-ranking actors.

The division between classical arts and folk arts pales into insignificance when we look at artistes groomed by the Mathoor Kalari. The artistes of the Kalari were proficient in Kathakali and the folk-ritual tradition of Velakali. The exercises of Kalarippayattu are widely employed in both these art forms. Mathoor Kunju Pillai Panickar was an all-time great artiste in the history of Kathakali. Poet Vallathol Narayana Menon even wanted the artiste to be one of the main trainers at Kerala Kalamandalam in the 1930's, but Panickar's sudden demise put an end to that.

Of the other noted artistes of the Mathoor Kalari, Mathoor Govindankutty has effortlessly established a name for himself, often for his skill at portraying major female roles in Kathakali.

Surrounded by Kathakali

Septuagenarian Govindankutty has always drawn inspiration from his predecessors. He recalls: “Since we had our own Kalari, I grew up in an environment brimming with the sights and sounds of Kathakali. My parents did not want me to become a Kathakali actor. But I was carried away by the acts and music of the Kalari. My elder brother, Mohanakunju Panickar, prompted me to join the Kalari for training. Thus at the age of 14, I began my training in Kathakali under Nedumudi Kuttappa Panickar.”

Training was restricted to the monsoon months and afterwards Govindankutty often accompanied his guru to various temples to don minor roles in all-night performances. In the years that followed, he received advanced tutelage in Kathakali under Kurichi Kunjan Panickar and Ambalapuzha Sekhar who were conversant with the training systems of Malabar. Govindankutty's interpretation of Indrani in the play ‘Kalakeyavadham,' which he performed at the temple in Thakazhi, caught the attention of Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair. Under Krishnan Nair, Govindankutty received special training in the techniques of the Kalluvazhi chitta for about six months.

Till his encounter with Kudamaloor Karunakaran Nair, who had carved a niche for himself in female roles, Govindankutty did not evince a keen interest in donning female characters. “As Damayanthi in ‘Nalacharitam – First Day,' Kudamaloor's playful interactions with the golden swan left a lasting impression on me,” says the veteran.

Along with titans such as Mankulam Vishnu Namboodiri, Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, Ramankutty Nair and Kalamandalam Gopi, he has enacted almost all the nayika roles in Kathakali repertoire. Familiarity with the Kalluvazhi chitta endeared Govindankutty to the stalwarts of the school.

Opportunities to learn

“Actors doing female roles are singularly fortunate in Kathakali for they get plenty of time on stage to observe and imbibe the stylistics of great actors one after the other. I could thus learn quite a lot from all the nayakas with whom I shared the stage, night after night,” observes the actor.

Govindankutty considers acting rather than dancing as his forte. Of the two rasas – Soka (sorrow) and Sringara (love) – which are particularly significant for the female characters, Govindankutty appears to be more inclined towards those nayikas steeped in pathos. Chandramathi, Devayani, Draupadi and Damayanthi are the roles, he says, that are closest to his heart, with his Chandramathi of the play ‘Harischandracharitam' being particularly well-appreciated by rasikas. The theatrical encounter between Chandramathi and Harischandran in the final sequence of the play is counted by connoisseurs as a fine example of Govindankutty's histrionic dexterity. “Brevity in Kudamaloor's execution of hand gestures and facial expressions is perhaps the greatest influence I had in the conceptualisation of my favourite roles,” muses the veteran.

Besides female roles, Govindankutty is equally famous for his male minukku roles such as Kuchela, the Brahmin in ‘Santhanagopalam,' Narada and Sudeva.

Married to the daughter of Kudamaloor Karunkaran Nair, Govindankutty's family continues to be wedded to Kathakali. His son Kudamaloor Muralikrishnan too is a Kathakali artiste. Among the numerous recognitions he has received, the award from the Sangeet Natak Akademi and the fellowship from the Ministry of Culture, Government of India, are perhaps the most prestigious.

Although the Mathoor Kalari has now become extinct, its flames are still visible on stage through the presence of Govindankutty for whom Kathakali is more of an abiding passion than a way of life.

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