THIRUVANANTHAPURAM: Kottarakkara Thampuran is considered the founder of kathakali. From the same soil emerges another great in the making. Ganga Kottarakkara has spent her entire life towards the artform of kathakali. “I am blessed to have gotten the opportunity to learn the art,” says the 67-year-old artist. She has performed kathakali on over 2,500 stages portraying hundreds of characters.
Born into a Tamil Brahmin family, girls were not encouraged to learn kathakali. “Though I enjoyed watching the art form, my parents did not let me learn it. After marriage, my friend Kottarakkara Bhadra and I began to learn kathakali. Initially, I just wanted to know more about the art form. But with God’s grace, I got to perform at many stages,” says Ganga. She learned kathakali under the tutelage of Mayyanad Kesavan Namboothiri.
Since the past 36 years, Ganga has been amusing kathakali enthusiasts across the world with her performance. One among the pioneering female artists of the state, she has performed both female and male characters. Remembering her first ever kathakali performance, Ganga says, “I performed the character of Lalitha in the kathakali attakatha ‘Narakasura Vadham’ in 1983. Seeing my performance then, Kesavan Namboothiri sir encouraged me to do male characters as well.”
Later, Ganga began training under Nelliyode Vasudevan Namboothiri and Kalamandalam Ramachandran Unnithan. By performing male characters along with men, she proved kathakali is not an art form which can only be performed by men. She currently performs characters including Chuvanna thadi (red beard) which portrays characters Dhusshasanan, Trigartha, Bali, Bakan and Veerabadran, Kari characters: Kirathan and Kattalan of Nalacharitham, Rakshasi characters: Simhika and Surpanakha. She has also performed special characters including Narasimhan, Bhadrakali and Poothan of Poothapattu.
Expressing her happiness in being able to perform with artists of different generations, she says, “Kathakali will sustain forever. It is still getting a lot of traction from people regardless of age, caste or creed.” Ganga encourages innovation in the art form. “Ramanattam evolved to become kathakali. Unlike the past, more women are coming to the forefront to learn the art form and that shows the acceptance,” says Ganga.
Having performed for over three decades, the artist is known for evoking the broad range of emotions in her audience. “Four years ago, I was performing the kathakali Poothapattu in Kochi. With the screech of the Pootham, the children who were watching got scared and their parents had to take them away. I was a bit worried after seeing the distributed audience. However, they later came and appreciated me on the impact and liveliness created by the performance,” says Ganga.
She also shared disappointment over the reduced number of platforms for women to learn kathakali. “Though there are many private institutions facilitating platforms to learn kathakali, no government institutions including Kerala Kalamandalam are taking interest in teaching women the art form,” she says.
For those aspiring kathakali artist, Ganga does have something to say. “Kathakali is a divine and a highly dignified art. Those who are interested in learning the art form must not miss the chance and should not forgo the opportunity to perform,” she says.
The artist has won a lot of laurels including the Award for Kathakali from Uthradom Thirunal Marthanda Varma Maharaja in 2000, Kalamandalam Award in 2009, Kottarakara Thampuran Award in 2010 and Kerala Government Cultural Award in 2010. She has performed in the fest Keli which was held recently at Bharat Bhavan. Ganga is an alumnus of Fatima Mata National College where she did her graduation in chemistry.