Maestro of Kavungal kalari
Kavungal Chathunni Panickar recently celebrated his shathabhishekam.
Chathunni Panickar mesmerized the audience ... with his characteristic vibrancy and inimitable grace of movements.
GRACE PERSONIFIED: Kavungal Chathunni Panickar.
In this age of homogenisation, diversities are neither respected nor are they noticed.
Look at the veritable treasure of our classical arts. Mohiniyattom, Thullal, Krishnanattom and even Koodiyattom are trying to imbibe aspects of Kathakali since its popularity, national and international, is increasing . It is interesting then to note the irony of Kathakali itself being deprived of its diversity. The Kadathanadan and Kalladikkodan schools ceased to exist long back. The Kaplingadan chitta probably merged into the southern school of training and performance. Of the remaining two, the once dominant Kavungal kalari is nearly non-existent. Its last patriarch, Kavungal Chathunni Panickar, is sad about the imminent extinction of a system of learning profoundly different from the rest.
The shathabhishekam of Chathunni Panickar held at Thichoor, his home-village, in June, was an opportunity for his friends, colleagues and sahrudayas to get together. They all assembled in front of the courtyard of the Ayyappa temple. Those who attended the function included the Speaker Therambil Ramakrishnan and K. Radhakrishnan, MLA, who felicitated Panickar at the function.
Downed by a paralytic stroke, Chathunni Panickar could not share with the listeners his childhood experiences in the village and the training he had under the legendary actor, Keechakan Sankara Panickar. While his colleagues and admirers spoke, Panickar seemed pensive. Almost as if he was sifting through his memories - of his early upbringing in the village, and the dramatic encounter with Mrinalini Sarabhai that changed his life.
LIVING LEGEND: Kavungal Chathunni Panickar.
After a zestful life of three or more decades, Panickar returned to his home-village in the 90's. M. Govindan's lengthy poem `Oru Koodiyattathinte Katha' published around that period chronicled the story of Sankara Panickar's life. In it, the poet vividly captures the spirit of a counter-culture initiated by Kavungal artistes against the dictates of Brahminical orthodoxy. With a full-fledged set-up for training and performance, the artistes of the Kavungal Tharavad headed by Sankara Panickar held performances in paddy fields. This was the first-ever attempt to take Kathakali out of the confines of temples and courtyards of provincial landlords to the public. The rebelliousness of Sankara Panickar is one of the qualities imbibed by his nephew and disciple Chathunni Panickar. Even Chathunni Panickar was not able to get comprehensive training in the Kavungal sambradayam. He had to switch tutelage from his eminent uncle to Kadambur Gopalan Nair.
Joie de vivre
Chathunni Panickar mesmerised the audience, especially that of south Kerala, with his characteristic vibrancy and inimitable grace of movements and the execution of hand-gestures. Be it the vigorously active Hanuman or the highly explosive Parasurama, Panickar's performance was always engrossing.
His hunter in `Nalacharitam' and `Kiratham' were immensely popular for their brisk actions and rhythmic richness. Panickar's Kathi characters and his Raudrabhima in `Duryodhanavadhom' were for a long time the craze of Kathakali fans. One wonders how and why Chathunni Panickar sustained his stature as a top-ranking Kathakali artiste in Kerala even in his prolonged absence. He spent his most resourceful days at the Darpana Dance Academy as its Principal and as the principal performer of the company.
He was then into experimental productions such as `Manushyan' along with dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai.
A silent retreat
While his senior colleague Keezhapadam Kumaran Nair succeeded in recapturing his space on the Kathakali stage after decades of absence, ailments dissuaded Chathunni Panickar from staging a come back.
Aimed at its preservation, he did make an earnest attempt to revive Kavungal kalari.
Fortunately, art lovers have recognised his contributions to Kathakali. The Sangeet Natak Akademi, the Kerala Sangeet Natak Akademi Fellowship, Kerala Kalamandalam Fellowship and the State Kathakali Awards are just some of the honours conferred upon him.
For those hundreds of Kathakali fans who have repeatedly enjoyed his marvellous movements on stage, Chathunni Panickar is the living symbol of a vibrant past.
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