The man who redefined Kathakali vocal music

From the introduction of carnatic ragas and the sruti box to traveling on stage, Venkitakrishna Bhagavathar has created new trends

In the composite art form of Kathakali, vocal music embodies the vachikaabhinaya (verbal action). This feature is a distinct departure from its predecessor, Koodiyattam, in which the actors speak chaste Sanskrit, Pakrit and Malayalam depending on the characters they present on stage.

Until the dawn of the 20th century, the vocal music of Kathakali could have loosely followed the canons of Sopana Sangeetam, sung by the Marars and Poduwals next to the sanctum sanctorum. After an intimate reading of the visual grammar of Kathakali with its unwavering emphasis on Navarasas, Mundaya Venkitakrishna Bhagavathar strongly felt that the vocal music of the dance form needed to be redefined and restructured, to strengthen the text, contexts and characters. He took on the task almost on his own and the rest is history.

Coming from a family of musicians from Mundaya, a sleepy village near Shoranur in the district of Palakkad, Venkitakrishna first trained in Kathakali with Moothedath Vasudevan Namboodiri. After performing a few female roles, he resigned to devote himself to vocal music under the same guru. Along with his brothers, Raman and Shankaran, he also trained in Carnatic music and at the age of 20, Venkitakrishna became the lead singer of the Kathakali scene. He became known as Venkitakrishna Bhagavathar in cultural circles in central Kerala. According to art historian KPS Menon, his training as an actor helped shape his career as a successful singer.

From a musical point of view, Kathakali’s pieces can be broadly divided into two categories – those of Kottayath Thampuran and a few others., that rarely allow singers to create an emotional ambience that can go beyond strong visual frames; and the plays of Unnai Warrier, Irayimman Thampi and others, which offer a large place for emotional singing, sometimes rivaling the actors.

The first requires respect for the rhythm and tempo of each padam while in the second, the singers must also keep the characters in mind. Venkitakrishna mixed these two qualities in his singing.

Kathakali artists perform

Kathakali artists perform “Kiratham” with the musical ensemble at the Vijayawada Dance Festival in 2020 | Photo credit: GIRI KVS

Introducing new ragas

He presented a host of Carnatic ragas that were new to the vocal musical tradition of Kathakali. Conservatives raised eyebrows when they first heard ragas such as Khamas, Darbar, Kapi, Sindhubhairavi, Chenchurutti and Nattakurunji. He converted long padams into ragmalika in order to save listeners from unbelievable boredom. Venkitakrishna also systematized the rendering of shlokas and dandakams (a prose-verse combination used in Kathakali to truncate multiple incidents in a play) while retaining deshi (native) ragas such as Paadi, Khandaram, Puraneeru, Kanakkurinji, Gaulipandu, and Navarasam . Although the phrases in these ragas are repetitive, each carries a distinctive scent appropriate to the character and context. Special care has been taken to ensure that the gamakas and brigas employed in the padams do not interfere with the sahitya.

It is well known that Venkitakrishna introduced the sruti box into kathakali music and insisted that his co-singers stick to the sruti as well. Singers before him weren’t that excited about following a particular sruti while singing multiple nights for many different characters.

Venkitakrishna was not happy when microphones began to invade the Kathakali stage. “He empowered the actors not only with evocative chants, but by constantly moving around to observe their actions and expressions. In contrast, today’s singers just stand in front of the pedestal mics and sing and do nothing to galvanize the actors, ”says percussionist and critic Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Poduwal.

Even in his heyday, Venkitakrishna drew the wrath of so-called purists, who deplored the marginalization of Sopana Sangeetam. But they did not realize that Carnatic music had already exerted its influence even on the traditional Kerala temple orchestra, Panchavadyam, and on Thayambaka, the solo recital on the chenda. Interestingly, the spearheads of these revolutionary changes were Thiruvilwamala Venkichan Swamy and Kolanthaswamy, both privileged caste Tamils, as was Subrahmanyappattar, the man who renovated the Kathakali melam (chenda-maddalam combination).

Among the singers who have accompanied Venkitakrishna on stage, Kalamandalam Neelakantan Nambeesan, over time, has established a style of his own and ensured his influence through his distinguished followers. Still, Nambeesan admitted that he learned all the aesthetic nuances of Kathakali music from his guru Venkitakrishna.

Over the years, Kathakali’s vocal music has undergone enormous transformations, some of which unfortunately go against the tried and true syntax that reaffirms the identity of the art form. This is why it is important to revisit the work of Venkitakrishna to understand how he innovated within the framework of tradition.

The author is a critic and connoisseur of traditional Kerala art forms.

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