It was a surreal morning. The venue was the beautiful cottage-like auditorium inside the late dance diva Chandralekha’s residence facing Elliots Beach in south Chennai. Most of those who had gathered to celebrate Kathakali maestro K.P. Kunhiraman’s 80th birthday were either close to or past his age, in spotless white dhotis or saris. The others present were young dancers and students of music and dance, trying to drink in the atmosphere of a bygone age.
Kunhiraman sat inside the cottage with Buddha-like calm, accompanied by his American kathakali dancer wife Katherine—Keki to all—by his side and their daughter going around taking photographs. There was a gentle hush as forgotten memories were rekindled and recalled, as silent tears were shed for a way of life that would never come back—a way of life that one speaker of the morning described as a shining example of simple living and high thinking.
The great actor K. Ambu Panikkar, Kunhiraman’s father, had spent the last eight years of his life at Rukmini Devi Arundale’s Kalakshetra, teaching Kathakali. After his death, Rukmini Devi invited Kunhiraman to come and learn the art in the gurukula system, with his father’s friend and colleague T.K. Chandu Panikkar. Kunhiraman stayed at Kalakshetra for the next thirty years becoming one of its most celebrated and revered dancers, with unforgettable performances in the Ramayana series and other dance drama programmes. He also helped his guru train some of the greatest names among male dancers to perform at Kalakshetra and elsewhere in the decades to come.
Keki and Kunhiraman moved to Berkeley, California in the 1960s, “with one change of clothes and one set of Kathakali purushavesham costume in his suitcase,” as Keki wrote in a recent tribute to her husband. “I had told him we would be ‘missionaries in the jungle’, and at times would find ourselves in the cannibal’s pot,” she continues. “Friends came to meet him, tiptoeing silently into the bedroom to see the hundred-year-old crown hanging in the closet as if it were a new baby.”
Five days later, after his first performance in the US, at the Gala Galactic Festival of Martial, Healing and Performing Arts, Kunhiraman was shocked to see hippies leaping around the park playing music, and bearded yogis standing on their heads in the grass.
Recovering from the eerie experience in time, the Kunhiramans made many friends and settled down to start their school Kalanjali. Over the years, they had a steady stream of students Indian and American, and they kept recharging their batteries by visiting India annually to watch and participate in the Kalakshetra Art Festival and other events.
According to Keki, Kathakali never really caught on in the US: it had too much dancing for theatre people and too much theatre for dancers, “but there were triumphs and adventures with Kathakali that we had never anticipated.”
“We performed at the American Theatre Convention, numerous community events, our own productions, we took Kathakali to New York, Texas, Nebraska, Arizona, Massachusetts, Pennsylvania and many other places.”
When Kunhiraman received the first choreography fellowship ever given to an Indian artist from the National Endowment for the Arts, the duo produced Keechaka Vadham, which was to be repeated many times over the years.
Embarrassingly once Kunhiraman mistook his daughter’s Halloween makeup for his green Kathakali makeup, and when he was dancing the role of Keechaka, and sweating profusely, his whole face ran off with the sweat!
The Kunhiramans have graduated from performance through teaching to “looking back.” To start from almost nothing and make a life in the US in Kathakali was a satisfying experience, despite the disappointment at not establishing the art more deeply in that country. “Perhaps if we had been willing to use the tradition as a language to express new ideas, and create new fusion theatre using the robust technique it would have survived in a mutant form, but neither of us wanted that, and in retrospect, we do not regret holding on to our original resolve, “ Keki says.
One of the speakers at the birthday celebration described how helpful the Kunhiramans had been to her when she visited Berkeley in the 1990s, and remembered her shock at being woken up by Kunhiraman in full Kathakali mask and make-up one morning. “I have made nice sambar for you. Please don’t wait for us for lunch as we are going out for the whole day.”
Rukmini Devi Arundale integrated Kathakali seamlessly into the dance drama format that she invented at Kalakshetra. It was a triumph of innovation that gave male dancers a great platform. Kunhiraman was perhaps the greatest exponent of the art form in a long line of distinguished performers the institution spawned.
His 80th birthday celebration, initiated by the renowned husband and wife team of Shanta and VP Dhananjayan, served to bring together several members of the large extended Kalakshetra family in a poignant reunion filled with memories of a glorious past. Keki and Kunhiraman were overwhelmed by the love and warmth of the exchanges among the participants, some of whom had come from as far as the US.