Had it been just another of his nights on stage, Madavoor Vasudevan Nair would have gone on to perform that innovative bit which no actor-dancer is known to have ever done in the history of the medieval theatre. The 89-year-old, as Ravana in a pathetic situation, would have rendered a heavy classical raga: a sitting-posture Shankarabharanam, where the identity of the mythological Lankan emperor beautifully blurs with that of the Kathakali master throughout the brief alapanam.
It’s a four-minute-or-so trump-card show from the veteran, who seldom betrayed signs of ageing and had in fact been consistently busy in the circuit. This time, though, the crowd in that Travancore temple saw him swoon all of a sudden—much before the Ravana in the story-play was supposed to collapse in his bid to lift Mount Kailash. Madavoor, as he was simply addressed (by his village name), breathed his last. That rung down curtains on an unadulterated stream of Thekkan Chitta: Kathakali’s southern school that he had so assiduously nurtured all his life.
Madavoor was effectively the last master of a style in which he was groomed during 12 years of stay at his master’s house. That happened in a verdant south-central Kerala countryside that, like most other places on earth those days, remained island-like with no big windows for cross-culture. By when he was noticed as a promise, nascent India had begun opening up possibilities of regional interfaces. One pertinent result was that it permitted Thekkan Chitta acolytes to mix a lot with Kathakali’s northerners. Every school, thus, started gaining a hybrid character.
Such eclecticism was absent in Madavoor, who was trained under titan Chengannur Raman Pillai (1886-1980) in gurukula—a residential educational system that is now antiquity. Madavoor, like his teacher, was proudly uncompromising in the techniques of his art—and revelled in a not-so-tacit rivalry with the increasingly predominant Kathakali style called Kalluvazhi of central Kerala.
It was this strong self-belief that led Madavoor to take up a job offer from Kalamandalam in 1967 when it just began a wing for Thekkan Chitta Kathakali. As the state’s premier performing-arts institution near Shoranur in middle Kerala, it had till then groomed students in only Kalluvazhi—the physique-centric school that—in contrast to Madavoor’s aesthetics—treated the art more as a stylised dance than drama with elements of realism. He taught there for a decade, till a Kathakali school closer home down the state invited him as its founder principal. That was Kalabharathi in semi-hilly Pakalkuri of eastern Kollam that borders Madavoor’s native district of Thiruvananthapuram.
Madavoor’s specialisation in anti-hero (Katthi) characters bore the spirit of his guru’s body language; what’s more, the two medium-build men shared a great degree of similarity in looks as Keechaka, Narakasura, Kamsa, Duryodhana or Bana. Those rough characters curiously juxtaposed with Madavoor’s upstart days when he did a lot of petite female roles. He also excelled in variety roles, be it the virtuous paccha (green-faced), the white-beard Hanuman or the blackish woodsman.
Yet his farewell role as Ravana in the Rambhapravesham episode was arguably his best. That happened on February 6, which has for long been the death anniversary of a renowned composer of south Indian classical music. It was on that date, in 1827 that Syama Sastri of the Carnatic trinity expired at the age of 65—on the other side of the Western Ghats.
Sastri, born in Tirivarur of the fertile Cauvery belt of what is now Tamil Nadu, has to his some 300 compositions (in Sanskrit, Telugu and Tamil). Among them, a handful are in Sankarabharanam—a major melody-type across the Deccan (and up north too, where Hindustani musicians call it Bilawal). Madavoor’s tryst with vocals wasn’t limited to that raga he sang for Ravana; in fact Vasudevan Nair was a reasonably known musician. So much so, he appeared as a singer in All India Radio that periodically aired his Kathakali songs.
The Kerala dance-drama anyway relies a lot on Carnatic ragas for its background musicality. Among Sastri’s Sankarabharanam kritis figures Saroja dala netri. The opening phrase, meaning ‘lotus-petal face’, is an attribution to what follows immediately: Himagiri putri. That is the daughter of the Himalayas. Which is, specifically, Sastri’s revered goddess Meenakshi, but generally referred to as Parvati—the daughter of Himavan or the Himalayas in Hindu mythology.
Parvati was seated next to her husband Shiva when Ravana once tried to lift their abode of Kailash—and initially succeeded, but eventually failed. Having got himself partly crushed under the huge mountain with its high peaks, the Lankan king draws out a nerve from his arm, ties it to his foot and strums it as a musical instrument. In a bid to please Shiva—who is also known as Shankara—he sings out a raga that carries the lord’s name. Or so goes one version of the Purana story.
It’s here that Madavoor customarily croons Shankarabharanam: his singing talent’s contribution to Kathakali’s total aesthetics. On February 6, he didn’t reach that part of the mudra-based action, which usually follows with him showing Shiva gifting Ravana with a divine sword. (An impressed Parvati, too, makes an offer for a boon, which a misogynist Ravana promptly declines contemptuously.)
In his personal life, though, Madavoor was a dignified soul, seldom capable of throwing a tantrum or ridiculing a fellow being. He never hankered after recognition. In an interview half-a-decade ago, Madavoor is seen suddenly getting confused over which of the Padma awards he had just won: the Vibhushan or Shri? It was in fact the Bhushan, and turned out that the master had no idea about its hierarchy.
Like most old-world masters, he confined himself to the art he loved. Award or no award, Kathakali performances during the non-monsoon months of his native Kerala defined Madavoor’s annual routine. To be busy in the field was his prime source of happiness—and that he continued to derive till the end.
When Madavoor’s body was taken to the pyre amid a vast assembly of people, his face featured the colourful make-up of the Kathakali Ravana. In those closed eyes that had beamed an array of emotions, ardent buffs sought to believe that the master was only readying for the next show.