THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: When Chavara Parukutty donned the role of Parasurama for ‘Seethaswayamvaram’ Kathakali in Chavara few years back, she was not only breaking the edifice of male dominion, but also announcing that age is no barrier when passion and dedication are in full. Parukutty, past 60 then, enacted with much ease a role that women artists usually turn away from due to the costume restrictions it poses. “Why should women shy away from trying ways to get round such challenges? I wore a skin colour dress covering the entire body and wore the costume of Parasurama above it”, she says.
After her power-packed performance as Lalitha in ‘Narakasura Vadham’ at the Sri Swathi Thirunal Music College as part of the ‘Sadhana’ programme organised by the Department of Dance, the tale did not come as a surprise. The 68- year- old, though exhausted after the performance, soon gathered herself together for a chat with City Express.
Parukutty had forayed into learning the art at a time when women were hardly a presence in Kathakali. A provocative remark by an aged woman had made her take dance seriously, she remembers. “I was learning a little bit of dance during my childhood. One day, seeing my dance-like movements, an old woman called me ‘attakkari’, (which was an offensive term then). I was all of 10 or 11 and felt very wronged,” she recalls.
She decided to master one of those dance forms which was most difficult to learn and expressed her desire to learn Kathakali to her father Sankaran Achari. Though he was taken aback at the demand of his daughter, he gave the nod. But, she had to wait for a few years before her father could find a tutor to teach her Kathakali. “I became the student of Muthuvilakkadu Gopala Panikkar at the age of sixteen. That long a wait had almost thwarted the spirit I carried at the age of 11. But still, I began learning Kathakali out of sheer determination” she reminisces.
To the astonishment of her Guru, Parukutty told him about her ambition to perform ‘Poothanamoksham’. She wanted to stage it on the approaching ‘thiruvonam’ day. A pre-university student at S N College for Women, Kollam, she could spare only Saturdays and Sundays to learn Kathakali. To learn and perform ‘Poothanamoksham’ was a great challenge for a beginner, especially in such a short time.
The first performance before a packed audience at the Kottamkulangara Devi Temple at Kollam gained wide accolades for Parukutty. The audience were watching a woman perform Kathakali for the first time and she was honoured with a medal and certificate from the organisers.
The single performance helped Parukutty carve her own niche in the field. She joined various Kathakali yogams and became a near constant presence at major Kathakali festivals.
After doing the female roles for a while, she went ahead to specialise in male characters under the tutelage of Poruvazhi Gopala Pillai Asan and debuted as ‘Krishna’ in ‘Rugmini Swayamvaram’.
In the saga that has crossed fifty years, she has never found age a hurdle. “One has to be completely involved while doing Kathakali. Stage experience is another indispensable factor. Even a person who has completed the stipulated eight-year training in Kathakali may not be able to do well on stage.”