The pitter-patter of the August rains sounds to challenge the flow of the rhythmic beats echoing inside the longish classroom, but the masters are focused on their task. So are the students. If there are passages where the sounds of the vocals and supporting instruments go mute, they are only to correct a pupil or two before resuming practice of the five-century-old art. After all, it is only in these 41 days of a year they actually teach and learn Krishnanattam in its academic form.
Now, that is one custom that makes this Kerala temple art unique.
Imagine! The classical dance-drama has its Hindu mythological story-plays essayed through stylised facial expression, gestures and body movements. The songs are rendered in a liturgical language as tough as Sanskrit, with the lyrics tuned to preordained melodic scales called ragas. The tempos are metered by permutations of an array of patterns known as talas. The make-up and costume are so nuanced that most characters require no less than three hours of make-up to appear on stage in resplendent costume. Yet, at its only nursery in the pilgrim town of Guruvayur, Krishnanattam continues to sustain life with all vital parameters intact despite its all-male team of artistes assembling in classroom for just 41 days a year.
That is because this Krishna-centric art, unlike its regional counterparts like Kathakali or Koodiyattam, literally adopts each of its boys into the fold once they join the course at the institution run by the Guruvayur Devaswom that primarily administers the famed Srikrishna shrine in central Kerala’s Thrissur district. This virtual appropriation would mean that each trainee, starting around the age of 10, effectively gets sufficient time ahead of his retirement from service as a tutor at Kalanilayam.
In fact, 2018 marks the 60th year of the establishment that has marked a critical revival of one of the medieval-era Dravidian performing arts that had begun to fade from Kerala’s cultural map by the mid-20th century. Monsoon is also the time when Krishnanattam sees its masters and disciples engaged in the important annual custom: intensive practice. This lasts a mere six weeks, primarily because the art-form, barring the June break, is performed in the Srikrishna temple round the year. That is, barring the three rainy months beginning from June.
Come September, and precincts of the shrine will routinely stage post-puja night shows as offerings by devotees, often spilling over to the small hours. What’s more, for the past three years, Krishnanattam has found a surge in invitations to present itself across Kerala, sometimes in other parts of India and even abroad. For all that, Kalanilayam alone has the artistes.
"The programmes outside number no less than 100 a year," estimates K Sukumaran, who is the head of the pivotal department of 'vesham' that grooms actor-dancers. "That also translates into a lot of stage experience. But then, to emerge as an actor, you have to practise, primarily. There is no other way than classroom studies. That’s what make these 41 days crucial."
Thus, unlike the case with post-Onam to peak-summer days of a year when the daily night performances highlight their routine, making early rise for studies impossible, Kalanilayam is right now into its crash course period of sorts for all its 70-odd troupe members. A typical day, till this August 23, starts at as early as 2.45am, when masters would wake up the students at their dormitory that occupies the first floor of the two-storey institution not far from the eastern gateway of the temple. Freshen up in 15 minutes, and the young generation huddles for an hour-long optical exercise involving running the iris in various configurations along a bulged eye. Then, at 4am, everyone is made to wear a loin cloth, their entire body smeared with sesame oil. Thus begins the aerobics-like foot-centric kaalsadhakam drills that soon give way for loose and taut movements called 'meyyurappadavu' which aims to strengthen muscles from head to toe.
As C Sethumadhavan, another senior tutor at Kalanilayam notes, these pre-sunrise lessons are important, given that they subsequently decide the stamina of a performer. "See, our art is all about stories from the Bhagavatam," he points out, referring to the devotion-centric Purana that is a biography of Lord Vishnu’s blue-hued avatar as Krishna — starting off as a divine infant to a prankster-toddler to an adolescent lover to a crafty statesman-king to the universal supreme being. "Krishna is a major presence in all the eight plays. It is one role any student debuts on stage and enacts at various stages of the god’s progress as a character. Some of the portrayals of the childhood episodes are long and vibrant, requiring excellent fitness at an early age," the 55-year-old adds. Example: Kaliyamardanam that shows little Krishna dance on a poisonous ten-hooded snake by the Yamuna he masterfully killed in his Vrindavan stint.
As the dawn sun struggles to show up in an overcast sky, children break for bath. The breakfast is rice gruel (kanji), along with ghee and boiled green gram, brought from the temple kitchen. Then, at 8 am, the whole team reassembles. The vesham boys and teachers are still bare-chested but wear the ethnic mundu round their waist. To the accompaniment of the two varieties of the vertical maddalam drums, scenes from Krishnanattam are rehearsed as training. The students mouth the rhythmic syllables called vaytharis that are filled in on the shuddha maddalam and toppi maddalam by the percussionists in the room. The two-hour morning sessions, which take up one half of a Krishnanattam story, don’t require musicians.
"We come into the main hall only in the afternoons," reveals Sathyanarayanan Elayath, a middle-aged vocalist with the troupe, about the three-hour spell that lasts till 5.30 pm. They lend their throats to the lines essaying another half of a Krishnanattam story. "For music students, training happens in the months of September to May. In the forenoons, they are taught Sanskrit. Later in the day, there are Carnatic lessons as well."
Some degree is proficiency in Sanskrit is essential for a Krishnanattam musician, given that it is in that ancient Indo-Aryan language the art has its stories penned to form the basic text. Manavedan (1585-1658), a Zamorin of Kozhikode in north Malabar, was five years short of his death at 73 when the king authored Krishnageeti segmented into eight plays: Avataram, Kaliyamardanam, Rasakrida, Kamsavadham, Swayamvaram, Banayuddham, Vividavadham and Swargarohanam.
Monsoon right time
At dusk, during the monsoon coaching, the students gather at the temple to take a round of the sanctum sanctorum before returning to their classrooms for a brief sitting for devotional bhajana songs. In non-monsoon months and barring the month-long June vacation, a section of the troupe members comprising the two kinds of maddalam artistes assembles in late evenings in front of the temple gopuram to sound the keli percussion concert that is an announcement for the night’s Krishnanattam show. That ten-minute daily ritual will have the rhythm set by the gong and cymbals, otherwise handled by the musicians on stage to keep time.
The horizontal maddalams, slung round the waist and played in standing posture, are the sole percussive instruments in Krishnanattam. "For us too, monsoons are the best period to train. The rainy weather gives us energy like in no other time," smiles young G S Ramakrishnan, who plays the shuddha maddalam. His sexagenarian teacher K V Harinarayanan notes that he used to give random maddalam classes in the instrument during the September-May months. "Compared to toppi maddalam, the shuddha variety has a lot more lessons to learn," notes the artiste, who retired from Kalanilayam in 2011 at the stipulated age of 60, but continues to live in bustling Guruvayur by the coast, 50 km south of his quiet Vellinezhi village in rugged Palakkad district.
For the vesham students of Ramakrishnan’s age and below, there’s a post-dusk session up till the standard dinner is served. They sit cross-legged in rows and try hand patterns including mudras. That is also the hour when they refresh their knowledge about the Purana stories. "In any case, they have to do both male and female roles," points out Sukumaran, who is the only practising Krishnanattam actor-dancer trained in the institution’s gurukula and new-age styles. When he joined as a student, Kalanilayam was in the final year of following teaching methods under an aged master called Azhakumarath Gopalan Nair, whose classrooms used to be at another Devaswom building where the vesham students too resided. To take care of him used to be an additional responsibility with his wards for a decade from 1958, when the Zamorin family chose to move out its troupe members with their paraphernalia to Guruvayur.
No vesham can come on stage without the chutti artistes, who does the facial make-up as well as the costume. "On the face, we still use the rice paste to build the broad white border. That part of the exercise is completely traditional," says chutti master E Raju. This is so when Kathakali and, later Koodiyattam, had begun using paper-cuttings along the visage since the second half of last century. Adds K T Unnikrishnan, the senior-most chutti master: "You need to get the mix right. One-third of it chunnambu (lime) and the rest raw-rice. If the chunnambu goes excess, your cheeks would boil. If it is less, then it would lose the holding capacity." Implication: the student has to be extremely careful—and ideally also talented in koppupani. That is, maintenance, if not making, of the Krishnanattam costume, which is typically stored in an attic inside the temple walls.
Kalanilayam superintendent Murali Puranattukara is vocal about the ‘advantages’ that staging each Krishnanattam story is believed to gift the devotee. He also reels out stock legends about the art-form’s age-old tryst with Guruvayur’s deity. "Of late, since 2015, we have been getting venues outside the temple in a big way. From Neeleswaram in upstate Kasargod district to the capital Thiruvananthapuram. Plus up north of India — in cities like Delhi, Badrinath, Mathura and Mumbai," he adds. Beyond the seas, only in 2015, the troupe staged a show in Singapore. An earlier history boasts of a 1980 European tour and, five years later, a US trip. In this century, the troupe once went to France.
Foreigners have long been enchanted with Krishnanattam. Indologist Pepita Seth, a British scholar known for her life-altering tryst with Guruvayur, emphasises the vitality of oil-massage training in the art form. It "makes their bodies capable of, when necessary, radiating a feminine quality," she writes in the 2009 book Heaven On Earth: The Universe of Kerala’s Guruvayur Temple.
The bliss factor is something up-and-coming Krishnanattam students, too, will hail. Gokul M Nair, who at 20, just completed his decade-long vesham course (the durations of music, percussion and make-up being five years), is happy to wait for his certificate. "It’s another matter," shrugs his master Sukumaran, "these boys will have to enter their 40s to become complete actors. We can afford to wait till then, because they are anyway already part of our troupe. Hence, this easiness about the schedule where we have 41 days of training a year." Young student Ranjith Raj is all too willing to wait. "It’s my good destiny to be in Guruvayur," adds the artiste from faraway Attingal in Thiruvananthapuram district.
Pan-Indian dance pundit Govardhan Panchal of Gujarat had once described the Mullappoo Chuttal group choreography in Krishnanattam as the most amazing of all traditional performances he has seen in the country. From a distance, that bit of circular dance between the little Krishna and a whole set of Gopikas would look like the petals of a lotus wilting and blooming. Krishnanattam has more talents to unfold in the future.