Kavalam: Guru non-pareil
- Methil Devika
e-mail: methil_d@yahoo.com

July 17, 2016

(This article first appeared in The Hindu Friday Review, dated June 30, 2016 and is reproduced here courtesy the author.)

It was yet another sleepy day at a national seminar on Mohiniyattam two decades ago. I remember the newspapers, for that extra punch, even carried a picture of me dozing while a scholar presented his paper.

During one such mid-day snooze at the 10-day seminar, something caught my attention. It was not the usual history or sampradayas that we had been mercilessly subjected to in the preceding days. Neither did the speaker throw up borrowed words of some author or scholar. On the contrary, what I heard was something so pragmatic, rustic, yet greatly appealing. I woke up to Kavalam Narayana Panikkar and to Mohiniyattam.

I had received the ‘Ustad Bismillah Khan Yuva Puraskar’ in 2007 when Kavalam sir was vice-chairman of Kendra Sangeet Natak Academy. The first time he met me was when I had approached him to pen Chilapatikaram in Malayalam. For me, it was life-changing, and since then Kavalam sir adopted me, like a true Guru, as his disciple. We had agreed to disagree on many points. But he was compassionate and never once doubted me. He had his differences about me doing Mohiniyattam to Carnatic compositions, which I continued to do religiously. Kavalam sir had wanted Mohiniyattam dancers to completely embrace the Sopanam style – a genre that he passionately created and propagated, and a term that had instigated many debates in the domain of Mohiniyattam in the past.

The art form of Mohiniyattam and the artistes will ever remain obliged to the great contribution he made to the art form. Many renowned dancers only performed a Kavalam Narayana Panikkar repertoire in their entire concert. Endless are the indigenous mnemonics he breathed into Mohiniyattam, making it vibrant, and the plethora of lilting songs he composed for Mohiniyattam to the metres of Kerala’s percussion.

Many of the dancers would not have been, if it had not been for Kavalam. For some, Mohiniyattam ceased to be Mohiniyattam without a complete repertoire of Kavalam sir’s. For many others, at least a single composition of his found due place in their margam. And yet for many others, he was not authentic enough for Mohiniyattam. They disparaged him. I once, tongue-in-cheek, told him that he had thrust indigenous music into Mohiniyattam like a mother would put food into the mouth of a baby. He laughed and said he was convinced that it was necessary for Mohiniyattam to grow.

Kavalam sir’s dogma was not without knowledge. His principles were also backed by science and the ratified intuitional knowledge that springs forth in effect. He believed that the art form had to be taken to its roots no matter who patronised it in history.

For me, knowing a ‘Kavalam’ school of thought has embellished my own perspective of word and representation in music. And consecutively and strangely, it also helped me maneuver musical genres he did not think would suit the pulse of Mohiniyattam. “Agneyam nimesham karmam anupameyam” is the first line of the last song Kavalam sir wrote for me. The final hours of Siddhartha, as the Prince chose between a princely life and what his heart desired. It was over the telephone that I spoke about the concept and within an hour, Kavalam sir had drafted it just the way I wanted. I had also told him that this time I wanted it to be set to tune by a Carnatic musician, and to my surprise he not only agreed but also prevailed upon an ace musician to tune it.

My visits to Thrikkannapuram in Thiruvananthapuram are memorable. I had also frequented the thriving Sopanam Kalari for projects other than Mohiniyattam. He had wanted to develop body kinesics in theatre, based on Natyasastra and he had utilised my acquaintance in other physical forms to develop a more liberal body dynamic and had documented it. Whether it was sitting with him trying to notate the rhythms of Theyyam, or whether it was during the many hours we sat together on the pristine Sangam Kalithogai, not a moment did he stray from detail, even if it benefitted only me. He would not let me leave without food and neither would he allow me to walk the mile to the bus stop.

He mused one day; the moment a dancer finds an enormous crowd for her performance, it is a reminder that there is something wrong with the performance. He had never wished to play to the gallery. He never underestimated the creative intellect of the common man and always ensured he had stylised enough to make the audience ponder and understand. His was never a direct approach.

Last year he came to see ‘Naaga’, the play I did with my husband Mukesh. Kavalam sir did not mince words on the fact that although he found the drama engaging, it was certainly not his school. He never wanted communication to be that easy in theatre. He was also extravagant with praise. He had many times commended my own Kalari in Palakkad and the way I had ‘wielded’ Carnatic compositions in Mohiniyattam saying that he could fortunately still feel the ‘pedigree.’ He spoke the language of the heart impeccably.

For Mohiniyattam, Kavalam Narayana Panikkar is as important as Kerala Kalamandalam. He had the great ability to think, write, compose, visualise and philosophise – all at the same time. An art aficionado in Delhi or Kolkata remembers him with the same fervour as a Malayali does. I know of thespians abroad and in India who talk greatly about his work and I have found it easier to rely on them as they had no prejudice. I am sure there are artistes who can talk at greater length about the phenomenon that is Kavalam. They may have a similar or different versions of him. This is mine. I will miss him and the Sopanam Kalari. Mohiniyattam has lost a great corpus and may feel orphaned as days go by. There is no one to replace a Kavalam and I suppose he leaves no equal by student lineage.

As I return from Thrikkannapuram after seeing his inanimate body, I feel terrible. I randomly think that if there is a world beyond, I would like to wake up to him yet again. The sky is overcast, the chariot is set and Kerala bids farewell to a hero in one tune...digidigitattamtai digidigitattamtai digidigitattamtai...

Methil Devika is a renowned Mohiniyattam dancer, writer, teacher and dance scholar.

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