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- C Ambujakshan Nair

September 16, 2006

The Nizhalkuthu Kathakali play is written by Pannisseri Nanu Pillai. Born on 11th September 1885 at Maruthoor Kulangara near Karunagappally in Kollam District, Nanu Pillai gained knowledge in Malayalam, Sanskrit, Tamil, Telugu, Kannada, Bengali and Arabic languages. Even from childhood days, Nanu Pillai was attracted towards Kathakali. He was a great follower of Sree Vidyadhiraja Paramabhattaraka Chattambi Swamikal.

Sitting: Guru Chengannur Raman Pillai ; Standing (Sishyas) Left to Right: Mankombu Sivasankara Pillai, Chennithala Chellappan Pillai, Harippad Ramakrishna Pillai, Madavur Vasudevan Nair

Nanu Pillai has written many Kathakali plays like Nizhalkuthu, Sankara Vijayam, Bhadrakali Vijayam, Paduka Pattabishekam, Markandeya Charitham etc. He has also written a book on Kathakali Aattaprakaram. Among his Kathakali plays, Nizhalkuthu became very famous. The story of Nizhalkuthu is based on 'Velabharatham,' which is a Nadodi Kavyam based on the epic Mahabharatham. In olden days, in the southern part of Kerala, to protect the house and safeguard the members of the family from "kshudraprayogam" (black magic), Nizhalkuthu paattu was sung by the Velan community in every house.

Nanu Pillai took interest in this story and wrote the Nizhalkuthu Attakatha. Initially, Nizhalkuthu Kathakali was popular in the southern districts of Kerala. In those days, it was auspicious to perform Nizhalkuthu Kathakali in the households. As the story line of the play is very simple, everyone can follow it easily. This was the main reason for the popularity of the play. This Attakatha was initially staged immediately after its scripting and Chennithala Kochu Pilla Panikkar did the role of the Mantravadi. (In Nizhalkuthu Kathakali, there are scenes of 'Mantravadam' - performing black magic). Panikkar used to do the Mantravadam in a very unique style. He kept kerosene in his mouth during the Kali and like a trained magician, he gushed it to a blazing 'pandham' (burning torch), thus making the audience spellbound.

Chennithala Chellappan Pillai

But after the initial years, the glow of Nizhalkuthu Kathakali started diminishing. Then Guru Chengannur Raman Pillai and Thakazhi Kuttan Pillai took interest to popularize the play. Guru Chengannur Raman Pillai as Duryodhanan, Mangulam Vishnu Namboothiri as Malayan, Kudamaloor Karunakaran Nair and Mangombu Sivasankara Pillai as Malayathi, Chennithala Chellappan Pillai as Manthrikan (Manthravadi), were a popular and renowned team of the play in those days. In his childhood days, Raman Pillai Asaan, had a little experience of watching Kochu Pilla Panikkar doing the role of Mantravadi. As Chennithala Chellappan Pillai was the grandson of the great Chennithala Kochu Pilla Panikkar, he initially hesitated to do the role of Mantravadi. But by earnestly watching one Narayana Panicken, a village black magician, who was from the Velan community, Chellappan Pillai was able to do the black magic on stage.

After the era of Guru Chengannur Raman Pillai, Harippad Ramakrishna Pillai, Pallippuram Gopalan Nair and Madavoor Vasudevan Nair excelled as Duryodhanan. After the era of Mangulam Vishnu Namboothiri, Oyoor Kochu Govinda Pillai, Mangombu Sivasankara Pillai and Pandalam Kerala Varma shone in the role of Malayan. Chirakkara Madhavan Kutty, Mathoor Govindan Kutty and (Mrs) Chavara Parukutty were exemplified in the role of Malayathi. Nelliyodu Vasudevan Namboothiri, Mathur Govindan Kutty, Chathannur Kochunarayana Pillai, Mayyanadu Kesavan Namboothiri are famous for depicting the role of Mantravadi.

Once, in Bharanikavu Temple, which is near Mavelikara, Nizhalkuthu Kathakali was performed and the Kali was stopped in middle because some untoward incident happened near the temple. After this incident, for many years, frequent problems began to occur in and around the temple. The temple authorities arranged a 'Deva Prasnam' and it came to light that earlier, the Nizhalkuthu Kathakali was stopped in the middle and because of that only the problems were happening. If the Nizhalkuthu Kathakali was once again played in 'full,' everything would become alright and the deity of the temple would be pleased. Thus in the year 1975, the Temple Committee started the 'Prasna Pariharam' by organizing a major Kathakali program and played Nizhalkuthu in full.

The story line of Nizhalkuthu is from the famous epic Mahabharatham, (though it is not scripted originally in Mahabharatham by sage Veda Vyasa). As Nizhalkuthu is a play, which has got more 'Lokadharmi' than 'Natyadharmi,' institutions like Kerala Kalamandalam did not include this Attakatha in their curriculum. The unusual scenes like performing black magic etc on the stage, contains mainly 'Lokadharmi.' But the actors who enacted the roles in Nizhalkuthu made the play most 'janaranjakam' (widely acclaimed by the audience). The people of southern Kerala have a special niche for this play. So it was only in the southern part of Kerala, especially in the areas south of Eranakulam and very rarely in Aluva side, that Nizhalkuthu play is very popular. Renowned Kathakali actors like Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair were very famous in playing the role of Malayan. On rare occasions, Kalamandalam Krishnan Kutty Poduval, the celebrated Chenda artist, played the role of Mantrikan, out of his own interest.

Nizhalkuthu Kathakali was staged in Kalamandalam for the first time in the year 2004 (the role of Duryodhanan enacted by Madavur Vasudevan Nair). The International Centre for Kathakali, New Delhi, performed Nizhalkuthu in 2005 with the role of Duryodhanan being played by Sadanam Balakrishnan, the Centre's Principal.

Recently on the occasion of Kottakkal Chandrasekara Warriar's 60th birthday celebrations, renowned artists from south Kerala presented Nizhalkuthu Kathakali. The huge invited audience who gathered in Kottakkal, really acclaimed the play and the artists who participated in the play. Because of the warm welcome given by the Kottakkal Kathakali lovers, Nizhalkuthu Kathakali was planned to be performed on the first day of the Kottakkal Viswambara Temple's annual festival. Oyoor Ramachandran was specially invited for the role of Malayathi. The story of Nizhalkuthu has totally 14 rangams (scenes) and now 7 scenes are only played and they are as follows:-

The legend of Nizhalkuthu happens during the time when the Pandavas are in their 14 years of 'Vanavasam' (exile in forest).

1. Duryodhanan (Thirakkinottam)
Duryodhanan sends one Doothan to bring a notorious Manthrikan named Bharatha Malayan, who is popular for black magic (Nizhalkuthu), to kill the Pandavas. The Doothan returned from the forest and informs Duryodhanan that the Manthrikan is engaged in vritham (penance) and after finishing it within two or three days, he would come and see the King. Then Duryodhanan sends the same Doothan to bring Thrigarthan immediately.

2. Thrigarthan (Thiranottam)
After his 'Thandedattam,' Thrigarthan watches the Doothan coming and knowing that Duryodhanan wants to see him, he gets ready to go and see Duryodhanan.

3. Duryodhanan & Thrigarthan
Duryodhanan welcomes Thrigarthan and tells him that Bharatha Malayan is coming to see him and Thrigarthan has to assess his 'manthrabalam' (power of magic). For this, he asks Thrigarthan to stay at the entrance of 'kotta' (Palace Gate) and not to allow Bharatha Malayan to enter the palace easily. Thrigarthan is ready and he stands at the palace gate to block Malayan.

4. Bharatha Malayan, Malayathi (his wife) & Manikantan (his son)
Bharatha Malayan returns to his house from the forest after completing his penance. Malayathi gives a warm welcome to her husband. Malayan tells her about the Doothan, who came from the palace of King Duryodhanan, and that he is going to see the King. Malayathi gives a full ivory tusk of an elephant, some good quality honey etc for presenting to King Duryodhanan. Malayathi asks Malayan to meet Kunthi Devi and the Pandavas while returning from Duryodhana's palace. Malayan and Malayathi feel there's some bad omen to continue the journey.

4. Malayan & Thrigarthan
Trigarthan is waiting for the arrival of Malayan. Malayan comes joyfully and tries to enter the kotta of Duryodhanan's palace. Thrigarthan blocks the way. Malayan very humbly prays to Thrigarthan that King Duryodhana himself has invited him. Finally by using his manthrika tricks (magic), Malayan enters the kotta and decides to see King Duryodhanan with a good vesham (disguise).

5. Duryodhanan & Manthrikan
Manthrikan (sundara vesha dhariyaya Malayan) wishes King Duryodhanan and presents the elephant's tusk to him. Duryodhanan asks him to kill the Pandavas by Nizhalkuthu and offers half his kingdom to Manthrikan. The Manthrikan tricks with help from Duryodhanan. Finally he kills the Pandavas. With many presents, Manthrikan goes back to his house.

6. Malayan, Malayathi & Manikantan
Malayan arrives at his house. Malayathi observes his face full of sorrow. He tells that on his way he saw one bird with its five kids and by "odi vidya" he killed the kids. On seeing the bird's sorrow, he felt bad. When finally Malayathi knows about the murder of the Pandavas, she gets mad. She kills her son in front of Malayan and runs out of her house.

7. Kunthi, Krishnan & Malayathi
Kunthi cries near the dead bodies of the Pandavas. Krishnan appears and gives life to the Pandavas. Malayathi arrives there and Krishnan tells her that her husband has not done any mistake and all the mistake is with the king only. He consoles her that her husband and son would live. (Dhanasi by Krishnan).

C Ambujakshan Nair is the son of Chennithala Chellappan Pillai, the grandson of Chennithala Kochu Pilla Panicker. He has attended Nizhalkuthu performances including the one at Bharanikavu temple near Mavelikara. Narayana Panicken belonging to the Velan community, used to stay near his house.

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