KOCHI:A young boy, on his way home from school, would lose himself to the beats of kathakali and keep looking at the performers' movements for hours at classes nearby. When his father realised the reason for his son's late return, the young lad's family sent him to learn the art form. The boy from Thiruvalla grew up to be well-known kathakali artist FACT Padmanabhan, who has kept his zeal for the traditional art alive. After my two years of learning at Thiruvalla under Raman Pillai and Madhavan Pillai, I did my arangettam at 12 in Srivallabha temple there, recollects Padmanabhan. The artist says some of his uncles from the maternal side were artists and the family, in general, were interested in the art form.
Padmanabhan's life has largely been dedicated to kathakali. He passed Class VII only after two attempts and stopped studies in Class IX, after which he turned his complete attention to kathakali. During my academic turmoil, I attended the FACT kathakali school's interview and cleared it. From then on, it was a non-stop journey, he says. After his seven years of life at FACT, he received a scholarship to learn under eminent artist Krishnan Nair Asan. It was a long 14 years of learning, Padmanabhan says, adding he has mostly donned female characters. During his stint in FACT, under Kalamandalam Karunakaran and Kudamaloor Karunakaran Nair, he started becoming popular in the field and earning accolades.
He travelled around the world, wooing international audiences. While I was learning the craft, my gurus told me that considering my body structure, female characters would be well-suited to me. Initially, it was a challenging thing to do, Padmanabhan says. From the feedback he has received, he was happy to learn that everyone appreciated his talent to right into the skin of every character: hero, villain or any other.Padmanabhan describes kathakali as a complete art form, with music, beats, story, characters, attractive make-up and performance. Anyone could enjoy the art and engage in the art. Though he has high regard for the art, he does not turn away from the reality of performers facing financial difficulties.
Things are slowly changed now but I never wanted my children to undergo the poverty that I went through. I never forced them to learn kathakali and wanted them to finish their studies, he says. The artist who is settled with his wife and children in Tripunithura enlightens aspiring youngsters about the art and feels many of the kids studying the art now do so with passion and dedication. One thing the artist remembers from his gurus is to never lose respect for the art, which he passes to his disciples too.
Padmanabhan's well-wishers have planned major cultural events at Kalikotta Palace for his birthday, including a 'Rukmini Swayamvaram' performance by the man himself in which he will be seen as a Brahmin. Padmanabhan says he hopes never to lose the energy to perform; if he could take his last breath while teaching his students, that would be the perfect time for the curtains to fall.