KOCHI: The sudden demise of acclaimed ottanthullal artist Kalamandalam Geethanandan about five years ago while performing at a temple in Irinjalakuda, Thrissur, was a huge loss for the art form, and especially for many aspiring artists across Kerala.
For Kalamandalam Vishnu M Guptha, an ottanthullal artist from Sreekrishnapuram in Palakkad, the loss was even bigger, as he was groomed by the exponent. As January 28 marks the death anniversary of this maestro artist, Vishnu will stage an ottanthullal performance portraying the life of his guru. Vishnu has written the piece as a biography for Geethanandan. “After studying at Kalamandalam, he also became a teacher here and later the head of the department too,” says Vishnu.
The legendary artist has also won Veerasringala and Thullal Kalanidhi awards and was the first to present thullalpadha kacheri (a rendition of thullal in a musical format). He was also the first person to perform thullal in Paris. Moreover, Geethanandan has also acted in around 30 Malayalam movies, including Kamaladalam, Thoovalkkottaram, Manassinakkare, etc.
“The one-hour performance will be held at Kalamandalam’s Koothambalam. I have written the (recitation) and choreographed the performance. The piece titled ‘Geethanandham’ will portray the life of my guru who has made remarkable contributions to popularise ottanthullal,” says Vishnu, who has been performing the art form for the past 12 years.
“His father Keshavan Nambeesan was also an ottanthullal artist but gave up the art form and went on to take up other jobs. He never wanted his son to follow his path. But Geethanandan followed his passion even after his father opposed it. It was while performing ‘Kalyanasougandhikam’ that he collapsed and died on stage. All this will be portrayed in my performance,” Vishnu says.
There are three types of Thullal — ottanthullal, Seethankan Thullal and Parayanthullal. “I will be performing the first form — ottanthullal — as a tribute to Kalamandalam Geethanandan,” he says.
“Kerala is a land of several art forms, but ‘Thullal’ is one of the oldest art forms that is a solo poetic performance combining dance and recitations. Traditionally, the art form is based on the works of Kunjan Nambiar. A single artist recites and performs at the same time and the focus is given on the expressions.”
A civil engineer by profession, Vishnu always had a passion for the art form since his childhood days and this prompted him to join the Kerala Kalamandalam at the age of 13.
“Though everyone suggested specialising in kathakali, I was interested in learning thullal. And my inspiration was Geethanandan, who was an established artist at that time. I completed the course and got the opportunity to perform at the temples and several stages in Kerala and other parts of the country,” says the 28-year-old, who writes and choreographs his performance during his free time from work.
During the pandemic in 2020, Vishnu wrote 30 to 50 Thullal pieces and performed them to spread public awareness of the coronavirus with the support of the government. “The most challenging part of this art form is learning the lyrics of the songs,” explains Vishnu and adds that he wishes to gain more experience in this art form and follow ottanthullal as his full-fledged career.
Vishnu is a recipient of this year’s ‘Art for Hope’ award in the performance art category by the Hyundai Motor India Foundation — the CSR arm of Hyundai Motor. He will be felicitated next month in New Delhi. He is also the Silver Jubilee Fellowship beneficiary of the state government from his panchayat.