Once upon a time, Kavalam was a village in Kerala that lived in the rhythms of season and the ebb and flow of the waters of the Pamba river and the Vembanad backwaters, accessible only by country boats. People were bound together by a precarious agrarian economy that was always at the mercy of the elements. Life revolved around agriculture; men and women worked on farmland claimed from the shallow parts of the Vembanad and protected from its rampaging waters by mud bunds. Nature constantly conspired against man and beast in these parts and people needed to stay together to survive. The spirit of collective action, despite the deep divisions of caste and class, permeated every aspect of life including its music, not out of choice but because of necessity. People invoked the gods and ancestral spirits with dance and music against a vast canvas of water and sky. It was here that Narayana Panikkar was born in 1928. The place shaped him and stayed with him all his life, its rhythms finding expression in his poetry, songs and theatre.
The man had become the place and the place had become the man. Theatre became a natural vocation for him, after having grown up in a landscape where collective action pervaded all aspects of life, and the drama of the place and people left an indelible mark on all his creative work.
Panikkar’s family, Chalayil, were pioneers in reclaiming the backwaters for paddy cultivation. One of Panikkar’s uncles, K.M. Panikkar, had made his mark as historian, writer and administrator. Whenever he was home, a galaxy of writers, especially the great poet, Vallathol Narayana Menon, and artistes would arrive in Kavalam to spend time with the scholar.
At home, Panikkar got introduced to the classical arts like Kathakali, Ottan Thullal (a story telling performance), Carnatic music and Sanskrit. Elsewhere, he imbibed the arts of the plebeians, the folk beats, vaitharis (thalas), and the songs of farm hands, duck farmers and the boatmen. This was the university where Panikkar learned his art and craft.
Panikkar trained to be a lawyer and, in fact, practiced at the court in Alappuzha. This is where he started his experiments in theatre in the 1960s. It was a time when the modernist movement in Kerala was taking roots, with the first impressions appearing in poetry and fiction. Writers like M. Govindan and C.N. Sreekantan Nair stressed the need for a native (tanathu) language in theatre as well. In Chennai, the painter K.C.S. Panicker, was searching for an indigenous language of art in his “Words and Symbols” series. Kavalam’s own cousin, Ayyappa Panikkar, N.N. Kakkad and others were transforming native rhythms and colloquial usages to write poetry that was modernist in sensibility and form. A theatre workshop held in 1967 was a turning point in the history of Malayalam theatre, as writers debated the idea of thanathu natakam (native or indigenous theatre). Three of the then prominent avant garde Malayalam theatre persons — CN, Kavalam and G. Sankara Pillai — were behind this inward gaze. While CN was more of a classicist, his magnificent Ramayana trilogy evidence of his classicism, and Sankara Pillai preferred to experiment with all genres, Kavalam returned to the myths and poetry of his village and surroundings.
Plays like Sakshi, Deivathar, Avanavankadamba (which is set around the Valadi temple), Karimkutti rooted in Thouryathrikam (music, dance and percussion) were pioneering plays that shocked Malayalam theatregoers. The conservative opinion, both from the right and the left, criticised him: one set could not accept going beyond the proscenium stage and realist portrayals whereas the other felt Kavalam was museumising folk art in the name of theatre. Kavalam, of course, didn’t bother. This was also a period when he extensively archived Kerala’s folk traditions.
In 1974, he shifted base to Thiruvananthapuram, which provided a wider canvas for his talent. His poetry, which stood apart within the modernist stream with its rural themes and mythological allusions and folk metres, flourished. He found in G. Aravindan, the celebrated filmmaker, a soulmate, who directed Avanavankadamba. His repertory attracted some of the finest actors in the state, among them Gopi and Nedumudi Venu, who later changed the grammar of acting in Malayalam cinema. Both recognised Kavalam as their guru, while Aravindan, got him to collaborate in films including Esthappan, Kummatti and Marattom. This was also the time, popular Malayalam middle cinema directors, Padmarajan and Bharathan, invited him to write lyrics for their films.
Songs like Poovankuzhali penninundoru kilunthupoloru manassu, Gopike nin viral thumburu meetti, Mukkutti thiruthali and Pularithoomanju thulli are today considered classics.
A major development in his work in theatre was when, nudged by Ayyappa Panikkar, he turned to reviving the works of Bhasa, the Sanskrit playwright, for the stage. Following an exhaustive study of Natyashastra, he produced Bhasa’s plays in Sanskrit, an unparalleled feat in Indian theatre.
A third area where he had remarkable impact was on the theory and praxis of Mohiniattam, a dance form indigenous to Kerala. His focus was on recovering the dance from the influence of Bharatanatyam and Carnatic music. His idea of the Sopanam tradition, in music and dance, to recognise and retrieve a Kerala tradition from the larger Dravidian performative traditions are encapsulated in the monograph, Sopanatatvam. This constant search to separate the singularity of tradition and celebrate indigenity is a hallmark of his creativity.
At 88, Kavalam had lived a full life. He had created a corpus of plays, a language of theatre, and an array of distinguished actors. In recent years, he would return every summer to Kavalam to conduct a month-long camp to introduce school children to Kerala’s cultural traditions. On Tuesday, he will return one last time to Kavalam, this time never to leave.