A Kathakali legend (1929-2018)

MADAVOOR Vasudevan Nair, one of the greatest exponents of Kerala’s sublime art form, Kathakali, passed away on 6 February 2018, while perform- ing at the Agasthamcode Mahadevi Temple at
Anchal. He was 89. He remained devoted to the art form right through his life, and never once thought about hanging up his boots. He took his last breath doing what he liked best; essaying a character on stage in front of admirers of the art, and his ardent fans.
Born in Madavoor in Thiruvananthapuram on 7 April 1929, Vasudevan Nair whose father Rama Kurup was a renowned folk dancer who was also well versed in Kambadakali and Kuthiyottam, took to Kathakali from the early age of 12, and his first teacher was Madavoor Parameswara Pillai from whom he picked up the basics of the dance form. Later he came under the tutelage of Kurinji Kunjan Panicker and Padmashri Changanur Raman Pillai for 12 years from the age of 17. Raman Pillai was the one and only veteran teacher of the Kathakali style called Kaplingadan, a pristine style
practiced in South Kerala. Vasudevan Nair made optimum use of this opportunity to master the various shades and nuances of Kathakali, and was ready to begin his journey as an artiste.
The stalwart won renown for his expertise in essaying several roles, namely, Minukku, Pachai, Kathi and Vellathaadi, but revealed a marked penchant for Kathi or villain roles. Some of the more famous characters that he brought to life on stage were Ravanan, Duryodhanan, Keechakan, Jarasandhan, Banan, Kamsan, Hiranyakasipu, and Narakasuran. He was also adept at portraying puranic characters like Hanuman, Hamsam, and Kaataalan. His forays into ‘Minukku’ characters like Brahmanan and Mannaan too won him a host of admirers. Nair was a highly respected figure in dance circles for his ability to enact various vesham-s (roles) in Kathakali. He regaled audiences by enacting the navarasa-s’ with a great deal of grace and flourish. His endeavour primarily was to restore the traditional style of Kathakali while ensuring that it remained acceptable to contemporary viewers. In the early stages of his career, Nair played female roles as well, with aplomb. He had the good fortune of performing alongside most of the titans of the time for well over five decades, and legendary performers and critics showered encomiums on him for his accomplished performances. He served as a faculty in an institution called Thekkan Kalari affiliated to Kerala Kalamandalam from 1968, and was also the Founder-Principal of Kalabharathi, another reputed dance-based organisation.
Vasudevan Nair during his long and eventful career performed in all parts of the country and abroad as well. Among the foreign countries where he successfully staged his shows to packed houses were Singapore, Hong Kong, Fijis,t Indonesia, Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States of America.
Nair won several laurels for his proficiency in the art and these included inter alia the Kerala Kalamandalam Puraskaram, and the Sangeet Natak Academy Fellowship from the Central Government. He was one of the last practitioners of the Kaplingadan style of Kathakali, and has trained and mentored several students who now have been able to carve their own niche in the art. Apart from being a performer, Nair was also a talented singer, and was an ‘A’ grade artist in Kathakali music with the All India Radio for three decades. Madavoor Vasudevan Nair has left behind a rich legacy for the future generations, and for contemporary performers and neophytes, his meticulous performances could serve as yardsticks of excellence and as valuable insights into the sublime levels that the art could touch. His appeal was not only to the connoisseurs, but also to the common folk who cheered his portrayals and whose constant encouragement and support prompted him to pursue his dancing career till the very end. The Padma Bhushan award conferred on him by the Government of India was a fitting honour to a legend of our times.

– C V Aravind is a Bangalore-based freelance journalist.