Ramankutty K was not a seasoned artisan when he made a wooden crown for Kalamandalam Gopi Asan, the doyen of Kathakali. In fact, he was only beginning to recognise the strokes that made a craft his signature piece.
“Usually, performers take off the crown during the intervals. But Gopi Asan allowed it to stay on his head until the entire performance was over. He summoned me at the end and said - your crown is so flawless that I don’t want to take it off at all. That’s the biggest recognition that has come my way,” says Ramankutty.
The artiste, who has been single-handedly crafting the wooden accessories used in Kerala’s traditional art forms for more than two decades, has a few other laurels to flaunt.
‘Krishnan Achari Smaraka Koppu Nirmana Kendram’ (named after Ramankutty’s father) in Vellinezhi, Palakkad, has been making accessories for Kathakali, Kutiyattam, Nangiarkoothu, Theyyam and such art forms for more than half-a-century. Keeping track of the number of ‘koppu’ made had become an indomitable task long back. “The entire gamut of ‘koppu’ that is now in use, whether in Kerala or outside, must be handcrafted either by my father or myself,” is all Ramankutty can offer.
When Krishnan Achari passed away in 1987, four sets of ‘koppu’ ordered by an artist in Patna were left undone. Ramankutty had never worked without the supervision of his father. “But there was no one else who could take up the responsibility. I was the sole heir to this legacy that had come to my father by sheer providence. I finished the work and sent them off to Patna on time. Then on, I have only done ‘koppu’ for a living.”
His creations have travelled to places all over the world. Germany, UK, USA and France are some of the names he can remember. “Foreign artistes, who come to Kerala to learn our traditional arts, are often guided here. Some of them get one or more sets of ‘koppu’ made to be taken back to their countries.”
There is one bitter memory that comes back to haunt him. Hans Christian Ostro from Norway, who learnt Kathakali under Kalamandalam Soman, visited Ramankutty in 1995 to order a set of ‘koppu’. “He took a keen interest in the wood work and was delighted to wear it for his ‘arangettam’. He had also promised to come back when he visited Kerala again,” remembers Ramankutty. But, Hans was kidnapped and murdered by terrorists in Kashmir on his way back. The ‘koppu’ is still preserved in his sister’s home.
There have been few attempts to document the style or making of the accessories used in traditional arts. Despite the fact that Ramankutty is the sole surviving resource person who can elucidate on the nuances of this fine art, he has no other students except for his two sons. “After the Sangeetha Nataka Akademi took over the Kendram in 2008, scholarships have been instituted for students. But there have been few students who stuck around for more than two years. It is a painstaking job and needs tremendous patience. It takes nearly two months to complete a set of accessories. It will require at least six years of apprenticeship before you could make a full set on your own.”
His sons, Unnikrishnan and Govindankutty, have been assisting their father for more than 10 years now. “The art has to live on. I could not have waited endlessly for a dedicated student. I asked my sons to give up academics after class 10. It was not easy to instill a genuine passion for the art in them. But now, they are beginning to see the divinity.”