Kottakkal Sivaraman redefined the female role in Kathakali

In his 60-year-long career, Kottakkal Sivaraman claimed a rightful place for the female characters in Kathakali. The thespian’s death anniversary was on July 19

He had no formal disciples but every Kathakali actor in a female role emulated, nay imitated, him. He was not fastidious about his facial makeup but once on stage, all eyes were fixed on him. His mudras were often incomplete but he was most expressive. He is Kottakkal Sivaraman, the man who redefined female roles in Kathakali’s modern era.

In every art form, there come once in a way path-breakers who create a lasting legacy. It is important for the artistes and connoisseurs to periodically evaluate their impact and analyse their contributions. Sivaraman, whose death anniversary was on July 19, is one such artist. It is a testimony to his legacy that for many viewers even today, 11 years after his death at the age of 74, Sivaraman remains the touchstone to evaluate performances.

Born in 1936 as the eighth child in a poor family in Karalmanna village in Palakkad, his formal schooling ended with class five as his mother could not afford to pay his school fee. His uncle, the eminent Kathakali guru Vazhenkada Kunju Nair, enrolled him in PSV Natya Sangham, Kottakkal. Sivaraman soon developed into a Kathakali artiste under the strict grooming of Kunju Nair. Perhaps because of his short stature, he came to focus on female characters.

What Sivaraman did in his 60-year-long career was essentially rewriting the script for many of the female characters of Kathakali. He infused the celestial characters of Kathakali with human emotions. His characterisations were earthy but his emotions and passions were expressed stylistically without being overtly natural. He argued that when heavenly characters come down to earth they are subject to the rules of this earth.

A space for the heroine

When Sivaraman started his career around 1950, most of the female roles were not fully developed or appreciated; they were merely tolerated as a necessity. That is when the artist inside Sivaraman started to rebel and decided to conquer stage territory. He didn’t try to overshadow the hero but was claiming the rightful place for the heroine, in the process often adding value to the main character. As Sivaraman recalls in a Doordarshan documentary, there were murmurs of disapproval at his new approach but his guru blessed him with his silence.

Perhaps Sivaraman is best known for his portrayal of Damayanti, the heroine of Unnayi Warrier’s famous romantic poem Nalacharitam. Damayanti, to him, was not a helpless woman deserted by her husband, but a strong, self-confident woman who devised ways to reunite with her husband. Nalacharitam, especially its denouement known as Naalam Divasam, was a favourite choice of viewers across Kerala for several years with Sivaraman as Damayanti and Kalamandalam Gopi as Nala, or Bahuka as he is known in this context.

Kathakali maestros Kalamandalam Gopi and Kottakkal Sivaraman on the stage

Kathakali maestros Kalamandalam Gopi and Kottakkal Sivaraman on the stage
| Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Says Gopi Asaan: “Sivaraman and I go back a long way and have performed together in many plays, as Damayanti and Nala, Mohini and Rugmangatha, as Kunti and Karna, as Devayani and Kacha. We had a good chemistry and intuitively knew how to react to each other without any prior understanding.”

“Sivaraman had the uncanny knack to delve deep into the characters he played. And that intuitive understanding of the female psyche illumined his performances. More than any other character, this was true of Damayanti, especially in Naalam Divasam. People even started referring to it as ‘Damayanti-charitam’. It was always a big challenge to perform this story with Sivaraman. Bahuka in Naalam Divasam was one of my toughest roles,” says Gopi Asaan.

Erudite performer

Sivaraman was a keen observer of life and nature, and a voracious reader. All this reflected in his thinking, influenced the reinterpretation of characters and coloured his performances. Connoisseurs even today talk of the beauty of his metaphors and his felicity in creating images for the viewers.

Kottakkal Sivaraman Kottakkal Sivaraman in ‘Rugmangada Charitam’

Kottakkal Sivaraman Kottakkal Sivaraman in ‘Rugmangada Charitam’
| Photo Credit: Rajan Karimoola

Sivaraman also masterfully brought out the duality in characters who were till then presented as unidimensional. For example in Kirmeeravadham, in the middle of the beautiful Lalita cajoling Panchali into the forest, Sivaraman flashes a hideous vengeful smile to remind the viewers that the character is in fact a demoness in disguise. He projected Mohini not merely as an enchantress sent to test Rugmangada’s devotion, but also as a woman who can never think of beheading a child. His Poothana was not just a demoness out to kill infant Krishna, she was also a woman and a mother.

Vellinezhi Haridas, a Kathakali actor, says Sivaraman has left his mark in almost every role he did. And the changes he made were always backed up by sound logic. Says Haridas, who had performed with Sivaraman and assisted him in makeup for nearly 15 years: “What I remember most about him is his humility and the willingness to accommodate and guide the young on stage.”

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