Four years ago, K.N. Jagannatha Varma did something that is generally unexpected from men of his age: debut a tayambaka, occupying the lead role of the traditional percussion ensemble. The septuagenarian was already known well in his native Kerala, having acted in close to 200 films since 1978, besides being busy with Malayalam television serials.
The artiste was 73 when he presented his first tayambaka concert, playing the weighty chenda slung down the shoulder. The 10-kg vertical drum ideally requires two years of daily practice to gain speed over its rolls by swinging the wrist in a unique fashion. The right juncture for initiation is pre-teen.
Varma had become a grandfather when he began taking classes in chenda from young guru Kandalloor Unnikrishnan in his south-central Kerala town. Cherthala in Alappuzha district has given birth to a handful of performing artistes—more so in the 20th century. Yet, that coastal belt had not been a stronghold of the 150-year-old tayambaka, which is typically a 90-minute solo with half-a-dozen accompanists on the ethnic bass drum and cymbals keeping the time.
Shirtless and wearing the off-white mundu around his waist, Varma would present the tayambaka that spanned for over an hour, unveiling a rhythmic pattern that began in slow pace and gained rapid pace in its second half. With the slender stick typically wielded by the right hand and the left palm supposed to produce four different sounds, the temple art he presented in a few venues in God’s Own Country and outside could seldom be hailed masterly. The willingness to be a student of something at a time when most elderly people fail to do anything beyond lazily watching the television made Varma stand out in the state’s increasing geriatric population that stands now at 12 per cent.
Varma had lost much of his physical fitness in the evening of his life, but his younger days were marked by simultaneous involvement in three professions—all of it requiring stamina. He joined the Kerala police as a sub-inspector, and went on to wear the khaki for over three decades till his retirement as a DySP. In between, he took a five-year break—owing to non-stop offers from Mollywood. Amid the twin-tracked career, he would occasionally try his histrionic skills in Kathakali that demanded method acting to its core.
The classical dance-drama had always been Varma’s craze since childhood. After all, Cherthala itself boasted of masters in that field: actors Pallippuram Gopalan Nair and Eramalloor Balakrishna Menon alongside vocalists Kuttappa Kurup, Thanneermukkam Viswambharan and Thankappa Panickar besides chenda exponent Padmanabha Panickar. Under the tutelage of Gopalan Nair, teenaged Jagannathan (along with his brother Surendranatha Varma, four years younger), made his entry on the Kathakali stage at their family-owned shrine.
In his middle age, too, Varma used to maintain his tryst with Kathakali—though the performances were few and far between. Yet, towards old age, he found a fresh spirit in focusing on certain roles that wouldn’t require the weighty costume. More specifically, female roles. Varma’s aged Kunti in the story-playKarnasapatham from the Mahabharata fetched him a few stages even in central Kerala’s Valluvanad, an erstwhile fiefdom that continues to be a stronghold of Kathakali.
In movies, he was noticed more for his screen presence than acting skills. The fair complexion and broad face fetched him certain character roles—be it a top cop, bureaucrat, lawyer or a priest in the church. In 1985, Mohanlal-Shobana-starrer Rangam saw Varma playing the key role of a venerated Kathakali guru. Two years later, he acted in an even more prominent role: as a diabolic politician in a Mammootty-Sumalatha superhit called New Delhi.
Notwithstanding the range factor in the two instances, Varma was an actor with limited skills. Yet his body language had a specialty that made imitating him a tough challenge for Kerala’s mimicry artistes who majorly thrive on shows copying popular figures. The first film that came out featuring him was Mattoly, meaning echo. None, though, tried to intone dialogues the way Varma did all his life—on screen or otherwise.