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Thankamani Kutty: An institution builder
- Padma Jayaraj, Thrissur

November 13, 2006

It is a classic case of a man following his destiny far from home and a woman following her husband to make her home in an alien culture. It is a success story of a couple, performing artists from rural Kerala, establishing south Indian dance and theater in the land of Rabindra Sangeetham. It is the typical Indian story of a family taking the challenge of carrying on a tradition. Perhaps, a family of souls is born to carry on a divine plan.

Born in the Kathakali village of Vellinezhi in Kerala, Govindan Kutty with the strength of his training in Kathakali, made Bengal his karma bhumi. He selected a brilliant student, Thankamani from his alma mater, Kerala Kalamandalam, to be his life-partner. It proved to be a union of commitment.

Thankamani Kutty in Mohiniattam

Young Thankamani performing Bharatanatyam
Her work in Bengal
Young Thankamani found Kolkata (Calcutta) a place where Rabindranath Tagore dominated - larger than life, an icon. His music spilled over. But the sound of rhythm that danced to the beat of dancing feet was almost absent. Indeed Tagore himself had made an attempt to take Kathakali and Mohinyattam from the poet Vallathol, the founder of Kerala Kalamandalam to Bengal. But the pioneering work of popularizing south Indian performing arts in Bengal remained the mission of the Kutty family.

"I introduced the rhythm of dance in the land of Rabindra Sangeetham," she says with pride. Today, their students are faculty members in Vishwabharati. This speaks in volumes of the work done by this ground-breaking couple in the land of melody.

The year 1958 was the turning point in the dancing career of young Thankamani Kutty. Settling down in Bengal, she began as a performer of Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam. Soon she started teaching her husband's students to form a group. Then the group swelled to perform classic texts of Tagore himself. She choreographed and performed the poetic-dramas like Chandalika and Chitrangada, beside other texts like Kalidasa's Sanskrit classics as well as contemporary ballets in different South Indian classical dance forms.

Incorporating Kathakali style for masculine-touches was her stamp. Thus her unique style came to be appreciated. Unseen to the public, a revolution was taking place in Bengal: a love for dance surged. The task of educating the art lovers of eastern region, creating a love for south Indian performing arts, and democratizing dance in independent India, made Thankamani Kutty a guru. Kalamandalam Calcutta established in 1968 became a premier institution imparting training in Bharatanatyam, Mohiniattam, Kathakali and Kuchipudi.

Thankamani Kutty & P Govindan Kutty

Disciples of Thankamani Kutty

Thankamani Kutty has to her credit several choreographic compositions by eminent musicians. She has applied the dance techniques of the classical forms into creative concepts. And innovative group presentations in different languages became popular. Ever since, she has been training and encouraging young talents to stand on their own. Many of her disciples won national scholar ships; many became trainers themselves. Today, with her protégé, she runs dance centers both at home and abroad. There are six centers within the city of Calcutta, and one in UK. Twenty five trainers are teaching Bharatanatyam, Mohiniattam, Kathakali and Kuchipudi to more than 1200 students.

Credit goes to Kalamandalam Calcutta for inviting stalwarts in Kathakali, like Ramankutty Nair, Kumaran Nair, Krishna Nair, Kalamandalam Gopi and many other artists to perform in Bengal. The centre has also collaborated with the State Music Academy in organizing workshops with these great maestros. Great classical dancers like Yamini Krishnamurthi, Padma Subrahmanyam, VP Dhananjayan, and Shobhana have performed for the connoisseurs of the classical performing arts.

Her family
Meanwhile her family grew in number and chose the surname 'Kutty.' Her husband, the Kathakali maestro, rose in eminence to become a promoter of culture in Bengal in a big way. He was a member of Board of Studies in Vishwabharati. He is still a visiting Professor of Giessen University, Germany, and Thribhuvan University, Nepal. Her three sons Mohan Kutty, (Nattuvangam), Somanath Kutty (Secretary, Kalamandalam Calcutta) and Sukumar Kutty (singer), chose to remain with their parents as per our ancient tenets.

"Do you miss a daughter?"
"God has blessed me with many daughters...," smiles the Guru. "Indeed it is a joy to be with so many young, talented, beautiful girls of Sonar Bengala."

Many firsts
Guru Thankamani has many firsts to her credit. She was the first dancer to perform South Indian dance forms on a regular basis in Calcutta. She gave the first TV program. She was the first to start a dance school. Now she is establishing her school into an academy. And she could plunge her family into dance, which is becoming rare nowadays. "The young consider me a grandmother."

Her dream
Spiritual in attitude, work is worship for her. Her day starts at 4am in the morning. Reading mystic literature is part of her routine. By 9am, she is at school. Invariably the strength is 200 a year. Foreign students come for short-term courses in addition to the regular classes. After a nap in the afternoon, she is at work until 8.30pm. It is a 7-day routine; the break comes while on tour. Traveling with her troupe is a regular feature of her institution.

Recognitions came in due course. She was honored with 'Nritya Sangeet O Drishya Kala Academy' award of West Bengal (1993), All India Critics award (1998), Kalaprathibha Puraskaram from Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Academy( 2006) to mention just some important ones.

Efforts to help carry on the institution that is poised to celebrate its 50th year are afoot. "It is my dream to make this Gurukulam, a Centre for Performing Arts and Research with audio-visual archives and auditorium for holding workshops and conducting performances."

The Government of Bengal has recognized her work by gifting land for her dream project. "The rest is in the hands of god, as they say," smiles Thankamani Kutty.

Kalamandalam Calcutta
7/2B, Dover Lane, Kolkata 700 029, India
Ph: (91-33) - 24618454, 24618338 Fax: (91-33) - 24618454
Email: /

Padma Jayaraj is a freelance journalist. She covers fine arts and travel for The Hindu, and is a regular contributor to

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