Meet Kathakali master Kalamandalam Ramachandran Unnithan
Ramachandran, who completed his training at Kerala Kalamandalam in 1971, started reluctantly but was soon acclaimed as a gifted artist.
KOCHI: The rolling eyes, furiously trembling cheeks, fang-like teeth, emphatic gestures, brisk foot movements, vicious looks and loud roars make him evil incarnate. For the past five decades, he has been ruling the stage playing ferocious and villainous characters and has a huge fan base across generations, who revere him as a master of Kathakali art.
Kalamandalam Ramachandran Unnithan, 72, has carved his place in the minds of Kathakali enthusiasts for his versatility. He started out at a time when characters with grey shades or anti-heroes were considered inferior.
It was the legion of gifted artists like Vellinezhi Nanu Nair, Champakulam Pachu Pillai and Nelliyode Vasudevan Namboodiri who revamped and provided dignity to such characters. Ramachandran, who completed his training at Kerala Kalamandalam in 1971, started reluctantly but was soon acclaimed as a gifted artist. He stands next only to Nelliyode for the dramatic portrayal of red beard (chuvanna thadi) characters, making the art more digestive to the common public.
Born in 1951, Unnithan entered the world of Kathakali accidentally. His father Vasu Pillai had taken him to Kathakali artist Kareepra Vasu Pillai for initial training. “My father was a retired Armyman and he was running a tea shop at Plakode in Kollam. I did not know about Kathakali but agreed to join as I wanted to escape the routine work at the shop. I had my maiden performance on the stage at the age of 12. Later, I joined Kalamandalam and continued training under Vazhenkada Kunju Nair Asan,” says Unnithan.
He completed his eight years of training that included a postgraduate diploma in 1971. “One day, Sadanam Krishnankutty Asan took me to Sadanam Kathakali Academy where I got the opportunity to don the role of Bali, a chuvanna thadi character. One of the stalwarts of the art, Vellinezhi Nanu Asan, was unable to perform due to some personal problem. After that, I performed as Dussasana at Kalamandalam and the great M K K Nair appreciated me. There was no looking back since then,” he says.
At barely 20 years old, he was selected for a tour to the US by the Kalamandalam troupe. Unnithan had gone on an 80-day tour of England for 12 consecutive years. “I have performed in almost every country including France, Russia, Canada and West Asian nations. The countries I missed are Japan, China and Germany. I have also performed in almost all states in India. The performance at Shimla was unforgettable,” he recalls.
Ramachandran has dedicated all of his life to the craft. “I couldn’t attend the funeral of my father and mother as I was on foreign tours at that time. When my father died I was in France and I couldn’t see my mother one last time as I was away in England. I came to know about their demise around one month later,” said Unnithan.
He enjoyed good chemistry with greats like Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair, Madavoor Vasudevan Nair, Haripad Ramakrishna Pillai and Thonnakkal Peethambaran. For him, one of the biggest shocks was the demise of Madavoor Vasudevan Nair. “A day before his demise we had shared the stage at Chunakkara. At that time Akkanadan Kalari Gurukkal, who was with me said there was something wrong with Asan’s eyes. He spoke to me as usual and we also clicked a photo together. I was devastated when I heard about his demise on stage the next day,” Unnithan says.
During his five-decade-long career, Unnithan has performed all roles including feminine characters on stage. And what does he think about his illustrious career? “I have performed all roles. But I like performing Dussasana of Duryodhana Vadham. I have also trained several foreigners in Kathakali. I have tried my best to take the art form to the common man by making it more dramatic.
I have tried to improvise the roles of Mannan, Mallan, Bali, Dussasana, Kattalan of Kiratham and Yavanas of Ambareesha Charitham. Though many degrade me as Lokadharmi, I don’t care. For the art to survive, it should communicate with the common man,” he said.