In his 60-year-long career, Kottakkal Sivaraman claimed a rightful place for the female characters in Kathakali. The thespian’s death anniversary was on July 19
He had no formal disciples but every Kathakali actor in a female role emulated, nay imitated, him. He was not fastidious about his facial makeup but once on stage, all eyes were fixed on him. His mudras were often incomplete but he was most expressive. He is Kottakkal Sivaraman, the man who redefined female roles in Kathakali’s modern era.
In every art form, there come once in a way path-breakers who create a lasting legacy. It is important for the artistes and connoisseurs to periodically evaluate their impact and analyse their contributions. Sivaraman, whose death anniversary was on July 19, is one such artist. It is a testimony to his legacy that for many viewers even today, 11 years after his death at the age of 74, Sivaraman remains the touchstone to evaluate performances.
Born in 1936 as the eighth child in a poor family in Karalmanna village in Palakkad, his formal schooling ended with class five as his mother could not afford to pay his school fee. His uncle, the eminent Kathakali guru Vazhenkada Kunju Nair, enrolled him in PSV Natya Sangham, Kottakkal. Sivaraman soon developed into a Kathakali artiste under the strict grooming of Kunju Nair. Perhaps because of his short stature, he came to focus on female characters.
What Sivaraman did in his 60-year-long career was essentially rewriting the script for many of the female characters of Kathakali. He infused the celestial characters of Kathakali with human emotions. His characterisations were earthy but his emotions and passions were expressed stylistically without being overtly natural. He argued that when heavenly characters come down to earth they are subject to the rules of this earth.
A space for the heroine
When Sivaraman started his career around 1950, most of the female roles were not fully developed or appreciated; they were merely tolerated as a necessity. That is when the artist inside Sivaraman started to rebel and decided to conquer stage territory. He didn’t try to overshadow the hero but was claiming the rightful place for the heroine, in the process often adding value to the main character. As Sivaraman recalls in a Doordarshan documentary, there were murmurs of disapproval at his new approach but his guru blessed him with his silence.
Perhaps Sivaraman is best known for his portrayal of Damayanti, the heroine of Unnayi Warrier’s famous romantic poem Nalacharitam. Damayanti, to him, was not a helpless woman deserted by her husband, but a strong, self-confident woman who devised ways to reunite with her husband. Nalacharitam, especially its denouement known as Naalam Divasam, was a favourite choice of viewers across Kerala for several years with Sivaraman as Damayanti and Kalamandalam Gopi as Nala, or Bahuka as he is known in this context.
Says Gopi Asaan: “Sivaraman and I go back a long way and have performed together in many plays, as Damayanti and Nala, Mohini and Rugmangatha, as Kunti and Karna, as Devayani and Kacha. We had a good chemistry and intuitively knew how to react to each other without any prior understanding.”