- The guru is enraged: the small, reed-thin student has messed up a critical bit of sequence yet again. The 15-year-old is being taken through a vital part of Kathakali training: the anti-hero’s part in Keechakavadham, which, the boy would only later learn, has an exalted status within the canon. At one point, the lecherous Keechaka has to teasingly simulate a female character, and that’s where the boy is repeatedly slipping up. The guru thrashes him black and blue—only to feel remorseful by evening, when both hug and weep in reconciliation. Followed by piping-hot parippuvadas, rolled in yesterday’s newspaper.
That’s a 65-year-old incident; a time when Kathakali—that beautiful, mysterious dark art forged on the crossroads of dance and theatre—was in a phase of critical renascence as it met a modern epoch. A time of self-aware attention to pedagogy, to the setting of norms, to codification. Over the decades, as the form attained a rare kind of respect from the world, that kid too went on to become a celebrity, perhaps the best (and best known) exponent of his art.
“I actually felt sorry I made my master cry,” recalls Kalamandalam Gopi, quite the master of all he surveys today, at a stately 81. Padmanabhan Nair was a sensitive, sympathetic tutor. “Most of us were short-fused. Beatings were integral to the classroom...whether or not we struck a truce later.” It matched. A classical ballet form—shining with a pre-modern light. And a training culture of near-monastic harshness, internally dictatorial, even patriarchal. All of it born…soaked in a feudal ethos, including that uncommon sense of awe and beauty.
Would you want to tinker with it? To update, evolve, change? A recent workshop on the dance form brought forth some of this...