Pariyanampatta Divakaran meant no revolutionary change in the aesthetics of his feudal art when the teenaged actor-dancer chose to sport the CPI(M) party symbol on his forehead while appearing in a minor role on the Kathakali stage. Presenting himself as one of mythological Shiva’s army men in the classically story-play Dakshayagam that was staged in a central-Kerala village in the late 1960s, he chose to sketch and paint sickle, hammer and star just above the meeting place of his eyebrows, much to the consternation of many in the audience and the greenroom.
“Of course Divakaran was thoroughly scolded by many elders after the night-long show that ended in the wee hours,” recalls fellow artiste Sadanam K. Harikumaran, who had co-performed on the occasion at an east Palakkad temple as one of the subaltern ‘Bhootaganam’ foot-soldiers of the lord of Mount Kailash. “He had then been a thorough atheist, yet never out to offend anyone’s belief in god. He remained a virtuous human being—an innocent soul who always spoke straight from the heart at the risk of earning displeasure,” adds Harikumaran, who currently heads the Sadanam Kathakali Akademi, east of Ottappalam, where the “true communist” was his batch-mate.
As well-known Kathakali artiste Naripatta Narayanan Namboodiri too recalls, it wasn’t much later that the Leftist boy cut the sacred thread slung down from his shoulder. Adds Harikumaran about the artiste, who was a grandnephew of iconic Marxist leader and Kerala first chief minister E.M.S. Namboodiripad: “It wasn’t as if he never went to the temple or completely gave up Hinduism.”
Pariyanampatta Divakaran, 63, died earlier this week in his native state after an unexpected multi-organ failure. A frontline artiste of the four-century- old dance-drama, he had shrunk in the final years of existence as a marginal presence owing to rheumatoid arthritis that had swelled his feet and challenged body movements.
For buffs, tall and lanky Divakaran revelled in two extremes when it came to the kind of characters he essayed all his life. Either pious or villainous. And largely the second category. Thus he gained name in rolls that required red or black hues on the face with a large headgear topping it. Chuvannataadi, as the stylised makeup-costume in red beard is called in Kathakali, remained his forte alongside the dark (kari) apparitions such as the hunter, demoness and woodsman. Contrastingly, he also excelled in portraying divine or god-fearing Purana characters such as Narada, Sudama or the Brahmin.
If his range as an artiste was that expansive, so were the styles of his teachers. At Sadanam, in the rugged Peroor village off Pathiripala, Divakaran was taught primarily by Keezhpadam Kumaran Nair (1916-2007), himself an innovative classicist bearing the spirit of his guru Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon who redefined Kalluvazhi-style Kathakali in the 20th century.
Another of his gurus was Sadanam Balakrishnan, a Keezhpadam disciple, who went on to become cosmopolitan in his stage craft thanks to his stint in Delhi as a master at the International Centre for Kathakali from where he retired as the principal in 2007.
His super-senior in the academy, all-rounder Sadanam Krishnankutty (along with veteran musician Neelakantan Nambissan) was instrumental in channelling Divakaran as a potential villain-role artiste, thereby making his path clearer and smoother.
These apart, Divakaran also learned from Kalamandalam. At the state’s premier performing-arts institute near Shoranur, it was the much-revered Padmanabhan Nair who took special care of him even as star performer Kalamandalam Gopi and theoretician Vazhenkada Vijayan showered equally immense affection on the garrulous as well as obedient youngster. Divakaran went on to be moulded under masters K.G. Vasudevan and V.P. Ramakrishnan Nair.
Eclecticism shone in Divakaran beyond stage conduct too. “He was always keen on encouraging fellow artistes,” recalls writer-percussionist Manoj Kuroor. “I was very young when I once played the chenda for him. He was in his prime. He spoke to me warmly before and after the performance (at the Viswambhara temple annual festival in Kottakkal of Malappuram district), while showing only pleasure with my way of drumming,” recalls Prof Kuroor, a poet-novelist who teaches in a college south of Kottayam.
Mumbai-based Kathakali artiste Priya Sudeep says she used to pay regular visits to Divakaran’s home at Peringannur near Pattambi during her annual Kerala break from the western Indian metropolis. “The last time we met, he asked me if I could hand him over a CD of my performance as Parasurama in Sitaswayamvaram. I am sad he passed away before I could gift it to him,” shrugs the pupil of Kalamandalam C. Gopalakrishnan.
Theatre activist Naripatta Raju reminisces how Divakaran appreciated his experimental mellowed yellow-and- red lighting on the Kathakali stage in the early 2000s. “At one such show in Sadanam, as Divakaran was doing the pre-performance rituals behind the hand-held curtain, he greeted the musicians, percussionists and then, looking a bit afar, me too sitting behind my set of equipment,” says Raju, an alumnus of the School of Drama, Thrissur.
Pertinently, Divakaran’s father Kunjunni Namboodiri was himself a revolutionary-minded theatre actor who did make a few appearances in movies and also gained local popularity as
a magician and mono-act artiste.
Kathakali’s new-generation scholar Sreechithran M.J. notes that Divakaran’s seconds-long gaze or loud roaring guffaws were enough to bring out the subtleties of his villainous characters that would otherwise take no less than an hour’s play-act.
“He noticed an error in a recent article of mine published, and rang me up to pinpoint it—least sounding bossy. Just a straight person full of regards,” says Sreechithran, a one-time blogger, now more active on social media.
Harikumaran rewinds to prime-time Divakaran, when the latter’s Veerabhadra in Dakshayagam would “devour” the whole show. “I, as Daksha or Shiva, used to find it extremely difficult to match up to his stage presence and show justice to my character who no less important,” he concedes.
But then, as Kottakkal Devadas, who has teamed up with Divakaran’s Bali on several venues as the monkey-king’s sulking brother Sugriva, says the late artiste was sometimes melancholic towards his last years. “Of late he told me that his conduct on the stage had been largely confined to the role of poor Sudama,” points out Devadas about Divakaran who died in a hospital near Thrissur on the night of October 30. “Even such invitations, despite initial enthusiasm from the organisers, began become few and far between, he used to say downcast. ‘Once you are out of the circuit, virtually none needs you’, he once mumbled—more to himself.”
For anyone who knew Divakaran as a sprightly person with loud laughs and warm enquiries, the artiste’s concluding decade on earth had been sadder than the news of his death.