Tribute to the legendary Kathakali artiste Mathoor Govindankutty
When Rugmini begins to fan the esteemed guest in the palace, Kuchela objects politely. “I’ve come just to see your husband Krishna, my childhood friend,” says the poor man. And, as the blue-hued god dances, Kuchela gestures, “Meeting him has driven away my fatigue.”
When the famed Vishnu temple in Tiruvalla in south-central Kerala hosted a Kathakali night on October 1, 2020, after the seven-month lockdown, Mathoor Govindankutty played the key role of Kuchelan. He had turned 80 just the week before.
Mathoor Govindan Kutty
As festivities slowly resumed, the veteran began to get many such invitations to perform. And when he danced as Kunti in mid-January at Mynagappally near Kollam, it turned out to be his swansong.
Mathoor Govindankutty as Kunti
Govindankutty was born into an affluent family known for its cultural lineage. Many members of the Mathoor household in the paddy belt of Kuttanad, of what is now Alappuzha district, were experts in the Velakali war dance. In the 18th century, the founder of the family, Mathoor Panicker headed the army of king Devanarayana of Chembakassery. The Mathoor family owned a Kaliyogam that had Kathakali paraphernalia, artistes, masters and classes in Nedumudi village.
Mathoor GovindanKutty as Kuchela
The endeavour generated a grand line-up of Kathakali performers. The most celebrated among them was Mathoor Kunjupilla Panicker (1873-1929). A contemporary of his was Kurichi Kunjan Panicker. He was Govindankutty’s teacher in the formative period. The boy had earlier been a pupil of locally renowned Nedumudi Kuttappa Panicker.
As a youngster, Govindankutty began gaining popularity for his female roles. That led him to train under Kudamaloor Karunakaran Nair, who was instrumental in enhancing the status of Kathakali heroines on stage. “Govindankutty could imbibe much of Kudamaloor’s acting style. Together they performed extensively, developing a good chemistry,” says late author Aymanam Krishna Kaimal in his encyclopaedia on the art form. The guru, meanwhile, became Govindankutty’s father-in-law as well and shifted base to Kudamaloor on the outskirts of Kottayam.
Govindankutty was further mentored by Ambalappuzha Sekhar, who was groomed in the dance-centric Kalluvazhi stream at Kalamandalam. “A mix of both methods enriched Govindankutty’s skills and craft,” notes scholar-percussionist Manoj Kuroor.
Kalamandalam Gopi says, “Govindankutty acted opposite me for a long time. As Devayani who is in love with Kacha, as Damayanti reuniting with Nala, as Kunti who shocks Karna with the truth behind his birth, and not once did he disappoint spectators.”
Margi Vijayakumar, also known for his female roles, says that Govindankutty insisted on perfection in choreography even while emphasising on abhinaya.
Benign and simple
As he grew old, Govindankutty began to don male roles that could hide or blur the creases on his face. “The move worked well,” says aesthete M. Mahesan.
Babu Namboothiri, who teaches music in Kalamandalam, recalls the way Govindankutty encouraged accompanists. “‘You sang so well’, he would tell me. Imagine being complimented by an artiste 30 years older than me!”
Chennai-based Saritha Varma has fond memories of performing with Govindankutty in Santhanagopalam at a 2018 festival. Adds Jayasree Mohandas, a Kathakali artiste from Mumbai, where Govindankutty performed a couple of years ago. “In the greenroom, he was very jovial.”
In no way was he meek. Blogger Ambujakshan Nair notes that Govindankutty mobilised colleagues and admirers to seek national recognition for Kathakali. “Even while in hospital last month, he called me and said we must protest against the art form being left out of the Padma awards this time as well.”
Govindankutty received the Fellowship of the Ministry of Culture and Kalamandalam, besides awards from the Central Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Kerala government. His son, Kudamaloor Muralikrishnan, is also a Kathakali artiste, while his two grandchildren are undergoing training. The Mathoor tradition is alive.
The writer is a keen follower of Kerala’s performing arts.