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Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, the Mozart of Kathakali
- Prof. Z. K. Peter

February 3, 2023

"Ever since I saw the great actor Krishnan Nair on stage for the first time when I was probably less than four years old, he has held a fascination for me. It was much later in life that I realised that this fascination came from his unique ability of making characters come to life on stage and interpreting them in an unusual way. His incredible confidence on stage and the way he brought out nuances in interpreting characters was something that I have not seen in others."
(Pg xxxvi, Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, the Mozart of Kathakali)

Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, the Mozart of Kathakali

For Dr. Mohan Gopinath, Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair on stage will always remain a legend who transforms himself so magically into the character that the art and the artist become one. Be it Nalan, Bhiman, Arjunan or characters with dark shades like Keechakan and Rugmangadan, Krishnan Nair asan could emote any role effortlessly. Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair (1914-1990) was one of the most renowned Kathakali artists and perhaps the greatest in the history of the four-century-old classical dance drama of Kerala.

Dr. Mohan Gopinath's book Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, the Mozart of Kathakali goes beyond a mere biography or chronicle of the actor. The focus of the book is on examining the dance drama (Kathakali) from different perspectives, and by doing so it is expected that the reader will get a sharper insight into the complexities of this dance form and the difficulties involved in producing a mature actor. The author examines the changes and interpretations that Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair brought to the genre which are relevant even to this day.

The book aims to promote an interest in the dance drama (Kathakali) and performing arts for a global audience. It will be of interest to academicians, practitioners of theatre, students of performing arts and aficionados of Kathakali and the world of theatre. The pairing of Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart and Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair in the title of the book shows not only how the East and West can meet but it beautifully twines two legends who connected with the people and their popularity over the ages stands testimony to that.

What makes this book unique is that it is the first time a book has been written about a single Kathakali actor in English which also brings in elements of the western theatre. In an unusual 'syncretic approach', he brings in another legend from the Shakespearean theatre, Sir Laurence Olivier, and juxtaposes the acting patterns of these masters of theatrical art and also the stories in both these art forms. It will be a rare delight for a student of theatre to see the surprising patterns of similarity in the two seemingly diverse worlds of Kathakali and Shakespearean theatre. The comparison pairs - the likes of The Merchant of Venice and Bali Vijayam or Othello and Duryodhana Vadham illustrate these similarities. There are also references to Kabuki, the Japanese dance drama which shows how art forms that are separated geographically and linguistically can have interesting parallels. This book is part of a trilogy and it is the second book. The first book - Vignettes Relating to Kathakali and Shakespeare: the Thirasheela versus the Curtain was also published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing, UK in January 2022.

Dr. Mohan Gopinath explores Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair's roles as a teacher, an actor and as a person; these are from the perspectives of his students, his admirers, and his daughter and granddaughter. They have recounted rare personal experiences which are heart warming to the reader. The methodology included interviews with Krishnan Nair's close family and people who knew him and had also seen him on stage. Actors who had passed out from Kalamandalam and other institutes teaching Kathakali were also interviewed. The book also highlights how Krishnan Nair asan was able to ensure that Kathakali performers were invested with status and were paid a decent wage, allowing them to live in reasonable comfort.

Chapter 1 - How it all began - starts by looking at the influence on Krishnan Nair asan of Guru Mani Madhava Chakyar who specialized in Koodiyaattam and Chakyar Koothu, both of which are forms of traditional Sanskrit theatre in Kerala.

Chapter 2 - The specific talents of two great actors - examines in detail two great actors - Sir Laurence Olivier and Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair and their extraordinary qualities that helped to transform themselves into the characters they were playing on stage.

Chapter 3 - Before the curtain rises - looks at Krishnan Nair the person and elaborates on how he captivated his audience.

Chapter 4 - Links to Shakespeare - two comparison pairs focus on comparison pairs (a play and a story) followed by a detailed study of the characters of Shylock and Ravanan, and Othello and Bhiman with a view to bring out the similarities.

Chapter 5 - Two great roles of Krishnan Nair - the likeable villain and Aristotle's tragic hero analyses two significant roles of Krishnan Nair - Nalan from Nala Charitham and Keechakan from Keechaka Vadham with an enormous amount of depth in the characters and among the most difficult roles to be interpreted by an actor.

Chapter 6 - The actor's links to experiments in Kathakali begins with a very brief look at the origins of Kathakali and then analyses the various experiments now being done with the dance drama.

Dr. Gopinath has lived with Kathakali in his life for many decades. He has recorded fascinating anecdotes in the book - his nostalgic memory about his childhood days in Kerala accompanying his father (from whom he inherited the passion for the art), watching the overnight Kathakali performances and even going to the aniyara (green room) with his father and talking to the actors. He is trained in Kathakali singing and his arangetram (first appearance on stage) was when he was studying at St. Stephen's College, Delhi. He had the privilege of singing many times for various performances. His wife Chinnam also had immense love for the dance form and she used to enjoy going to the performances along with him. He studied Shakespeare under some wonderful teachers at St. Stephen's College, Delhi and he owes his love for literature to them. So, surely the comparisons in the book came naturally. In his own words, "They were there - only waiting to be uncovered."

Dr. Mohan Gopinath's sharp observations, keen insights, wide scholarship across diverse domains and, above all, the unalloyed passion for both Kathakali and Shakespeare have helped in shaping the flow of the book and the author's unique perspective on character interpretation. The book has been immensely blessed with a Foreword written by Sreedevi Rajan, daughter of Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair and a Prologue by the granddaughter, Smitha Rajan. The book is a humble tribute to the late Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair and his performances and will be a rare and befitting document of his life and art.

Dr. Mohan Gopinath
Dr. Mohan Gopinath

Dr. Mohan Gopinath holds a Master's degree in English Literature from St. Stephen's College at Delhi University, and a doctoral degree from Osmania University, India. He worked at the Hongkong and Shanghai Banking Corporation as a senior-level banker for almost 21 years in India, UK and Hong Kong. His areas of interest are leadership, management of change, conflict resolution, banking, and protection of the environment. He has written and published papers and case studies across a range of subjects, including banking, organizational behaviour, human resources, finance, the environment, and the performing arts.

Published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle on Tyne, U.K. November 2022
(Hardcover. ISBN: 1-5275-9077-1. Pages 232)

Prof. Z. K. Peter is a retired Professor of English Literature based in Bangalore.

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