Every time he takes to the stage, he says there is a divine intervention and he transforms into Lord Krishna with consummate ease. His glowing yellow attire, a crown embellished with peacock feathers, stark green painted on his cheeks, bright red on his lips adds to his persona and what stands out is a white, semi-circular paper cut-out attached to his jaw.
Meet Kerala's Chemancheri Kunhiraman Nair, one of India's most respected Kathakali dancers. And he celebrated his 99th birthday last month (he was born on June 26, 1916)!Nair last performed about three months ago, at Vallora Kaavu temple at Kolathur in Calicut, when he played Saint Vishwamitra. Three months before that, at Kuniyil temple in Keezhpayyur (Calicut) - his first stage - he played Krishna in the story Duryodhanavadham (The Killing of Duryodhana).
Kunhiraman during the last performance, three months ago. (Photo Courtesy: Sunil Sarang) His first role, as a 15-year-old, was that of Draupadi, the wife of Pandavas, in a Mahabharata-based performance. Later, he started acting the role of Krishna, his most admired one and with which he is associated with the most. "Krishna's role was my guru's suggestion. He realised I had the ideal height, face shape, and the looks to be Krishna. And later I myself became attached to that role, enjoying it so much," says Nair, who stands at five-and-a-half feet.
The costumes are very heavy. (Photo Courtesy: Sunil Sarang)
In Kathakali, traditionally when an artist turns old he bids goodbye by performing the Petti Vech Kali (winding-up play). Having lived for a century, Nair is yet to perform his swansong. "He does not like doing that. Seems like he has plans to perform more," says his nephew, K K Sankaran (lovingly called Sankaran Master).
Age no barrier
Nair has to wear an attire weighing around 30 kg and with 64 tight knots all over the body - something that can bog down an ordinary person and leave him struggling for breath - and dance, jump on his toes, make swift hand gestures and maintain perfect facial expressions.
Kunhiraman in his youth. (Photo Courtesy: Sunil Sarang)
That is not all. Nair's legs are supported by steel rods, which were inserted after he was injured in a road accident a few years ago. He also had to get many stitches on his hands after the incident. However, none of these ever stopped this veteran artiste.
Nair seems perfectly fit except for his failing eyesight. He wakes up at 5.30 in the morning, has his coffee, gets an oil massage, exercises and even shaves alone before a bath and prays for almost an hour. He is active like any other person - attending functions, overseeing classes at the Kathakali Vidyalaya that he established in his village, visiting his relatives or others. At night, after his dinner around 8.30pm, he never misses his favourite TV shows and goes to bed at 11.30pm.
"He is very healthy, may be healthier than me. He does not have issues of blood sugar, pressure or cholesterol," says Sankaran.
Raised in a Nair family at Cheliya, a village 40 km away from Calicut, Nair lost his mother when he was only three and his father when he was 13. Nair grew up watching performances by drama troupes that visited his village. Fascinated by these performances, he ran away from home when he was 15 to join a Kathakali training centre some 25 km away from home.
His first guru was Palayil Karunakara Menon, of Radhakrishna Kathakali Yogam (established by Appukkutti Nambiar, a Kathakali patron and a feudal lord) in Keezhpayyur.
"Deep within I felt like I should go," he says. "I asked my sister for a few Anas. She had a suspicion that I was up to something."
In the 1940s, when India came under the influence of the nationalist movement that shook the foundations of many of the old institutions, it had its impact on Kathakali as well. In Kerala, the feudal system started disintegrating, depriving the art form of its patrons.
"In the 1940s most of the Kathakali yogams (training centres) had to be closed. I had to turn to farming for a while," he says.
Later, Nair was invited by Raja of Kadathanadu, a king of a small kingdom in Northern Malabar, who appointed him as a dance teacher at his residence. There he met Kaumudi teacher, a freedom fighter who was known for donating all her gold ornaments to Mahatma Gandhi when she was a child.
"She told me to choreograph group dances for the girls in her school at Kannur (a district in north Kerala). I did and they liked it. Then I stayed in Kannur for some time."
He started teaching the dance form in various schools in Kannur. In 1943, he set up the Bharatiya Nrithya Kalayam at Kannur. One branch of Kalayam was also established at Thalassery, famous for circus companies, a very popular means of entertainment back then. Impressed by the dance shows he had organised, the manager of the famous Fairy Circus company invited Nair to teach women employed with the circus.
Nair started travelling with the circus to different parts of South India. During one such trip, he accidentally met a famous dancer, Bala bai, at Tamil Nadu's Salem. On her invitation, he went to Madras and learned Bharatnatyam, another classical South Indian dance form, for one year.
Relationships and losses
By the late 1940s, Nair came back to settle down in Kannur. This was the time when the then 31-year-old Nair met his life partner, Janaki. She was a soft, lovely woman who was good at writing poems, according to close relatives. But his life took some sad turns. The couple lost their first child, a girl, after six years of their marriage. Next year Janaki died too.
"It was a shock for uncle. He loved her that much. He was left with only his son, barely a year old. Although all these years several people told him to re-marry, he never listened. He could not forget her," says Sankaran.
Another big loss for Nair was the death of his guru, Palayil Karunakara Menon. It was a Kathakali play, Kuchelavrithham, in which was playing Lord Krishna and Menon Kuchela, the poor colleague of Krishna. "We were doing the part where Asan (Menon) as Kuchela was in Krishna's palace, where he was receiving all the hospitality from Krishna. While our performance went on, I saw that Asan was not moving from the chair where he sat. When I touched him, he fell into my hands. He was unconscious."
The play was stopped. Having no time to remove his makeup completely, Nair carried Menon to his house. On the third day, his guru died in his arms. "The last thing my guru saw in full consciousness was my Krishna on the stage," Nair remembers nostalgically. He performed the final rites for Menon and stills performs the rituals on his guru's death anniversary every year.
Leaving his mark
Nair has made immense contributions to the world of dance. A Kathakali centre, which he established in his village in 1983, has contributed much to the dance form through the on-going classes and the annual study camps that attract people from all over the state and outside.
Kalamandalam Gopi, the iconic Kathakali artist of Kerala, says, "He regards me like a disciple as well as his son. Having him with us is a great thing for the art of Kathakali itself. He has dedicated his entire life for the art. If all the people in the field were as good and broad-hearted as he is, it would be a great thing for the field."
Kunhiraman with Kathakali legend Kalamandalam Gopi. (Photo Courtesy: RekhaRaman Chemanchery)
It is not just Kathakali that has benefited from him. He is also a proponent of Ashtapadi Attam, another form of dance drama based on the verses of Gitagovindam written by the medieval poet Jayadeva. Working with late Guru Gopinath, Nair has also helped in giving shape to Kerala Natanam, a lighter and less technical combination of Kathakali and Mohiniyattam, which is now a government-recognised dance form in Kerala.
Nair also established a ballet troop that at its most active time had around 60 members. He has also worked with several drama troops in northern Kerala.
On the beginning of his 100th year celebrations, his village honoured him by celebrating the day like a big festival. Kerala chief minister Oommen Chandi during the function that was attended by around 4,000 people - including his colleagues, students, relatives and fellow villagers - inaugurated the year-long celebrations earlier in July. Kerala government also declared Cheliya, Nair's village, as a Kathakali Village during the function.
Kunhiraman with classic Malayalam actor Sheela. (Photo Courtesy: RekhaRaman Chemanchery)
His relatives say the veteran is raring to take to the stage again in August: to be a part of the Ramayana Masam (Karkkidaka month as per Malayalam calendar) in a play directed by one of his former disciples.
"Let it go as far as it goes, as per his wish," says Nair looking up to the sky and joining his hands in a prayer.