Kathakali has been around for a long time now, an art form which only a few dared to break from its traditional shackles. Kottakkal Sasidharan Nair is one of those rare artistes who had the gumption and the impeccable creativity to give Kathakali a different form and receive an entirely different kind of acceptance from across the world. Sasidharan was in the city to perform Bharatham Mohanam, where he performed his own composition thanking Lord Krishna and Ramayanam.
With a schooling background of just standard five, Sasidharan decided to pursue Kathakali as his education. He firmly believes that Kathakali is his sole language of communication. “Outside India, Kathakali is an education. Whether you have a degree or not is not important there. However, here if you do not have proper schooling, you are nobody, whether you are an expert in Kathakali or not,” he says with a chuckle. His statement was lined with a tinge of sarcasm at how much his country and his birth land have rarely appreciated or accepted him for the unique twist he has given to Kathakali. He is most known among Kathakali aficionados for capturing the life of Jesus Christ through Kathakali attam.
Sasidharan left India and started touring the world in 1971. Despite facing challenges, when it came to communicating with the foreign crowd, he soon became one of the most sought-after Kathakali artistes amongst the art-loving crowd abroad.
“These foreigners lack so many emotions that come so easily to people in India, yet their sheer dedication and curiosity to learn Kathakali have almost always astounded me,” he says.
“The girls there, who wear tight short hot pants and tees, lack that demureness that we associate with our women here. It is hard for them to understand characters like Shakuntala, a character which portrays myriad emotions. I had to start from the scratch to teach those girls, so I used to make them sit down and make them recite omkaram over and over again and tell them stories from our puranas so that they understand our characters,” he explains.
About his decision to perform without the traditional makeup and attire of Kathakali, Sasidharan says, “Kathakali is a poor man’s rich art. You won’t find anyone from affluent families learning Kathakali. A Kathakali costume costs up to `1.5 lakh, for a person. So I decided to break the tradition and perform the art as raw as possible. Besides, I also found that the crowd abroad has accepted Kathakali without its traditional attire. They seem to understand the art better this way.” His decision to break away from the traditional form was however, not accepted well here. “Kathakali in its most traditional form is the best. I am always happy performing it that way. But giving it a little twist gives me a kind of personal satisfaction,”says Sasidharan.
His composition of the birth, life and death of Jesus Christ was well received in all major countries. Sasidharan shares about the challenges he had to face while composing it: “There is very little of Christ inside me, but there is a lot of Krishna inside me. It’s easier to perform any part of Krishna’s life. I had to do a lot of research before plunging into creating the life of Jesus Christ through Kathakali. However, the end result was quite amazing and well-received.” “There was just one man, from Kunnamkulam, who had approached me before my performance in London. He asked me whether it was really required to perform Jesus’s life through Kathakali wearing that long bindi? It was the only negative opinion I received abroad,” he laughs.
Sasidharan’s next step is to incorporate Mappila songs in Kathakali. “This is something I am working on right now. I will be using the exact song and will mix Kathakali aatam in it.”
The other speciality of his performances is that unlike other Kathakali attams, his performances last for just about 30 minutes. His portrayal of Life of Lord Krishna till the Kurukshetra war is a 36-minute performance. “This particular aattam is performed by nearly 400 Kathakali artistes in 23 nights,” he explains. He draws his inspiration from all the classical dance forms of India and also classical ballet.
Kottakkal Sasidharan Nair is the only person in his family who has pursued performing arts. It all started from PSV Natya Sangham, Kottakkal, from where he trained under the famous artist Kottakkal Krishnankutty Nair.
He later on received training in Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi from renowned artist Mrinalini Sarabhai, founder and director of Darpana Academy of Performing Arts, Ahmedabad. Sasidharan has also mastered Koodiyattam under Jalamandalam Narayana Chakyar.