How a costume artist bridged Kathakali and Krishnanattam

How a costume artist bridged Kathakali and Krishnanattam

Sreevalsan Thiyyadi

 Veteran Silpi Janardanan calls for an update in the training of make-up and costume-making in two Kerala classical performing arts

Back from school one evening, K V Janardanan thought he would sketch an elephant the teacher had taught him that forenoon. The nine-year-old tried his artistry on the front wall of their modest house in central Kerala. The work invited furious rebuke from the boy’s mother. Indignant, he chose to mould the animal’s shape out of clay.

An anthill in the backyard turned out to be the raw material. “I shaped the tusks from a pair of twigs. I painted them white by applying lime, the mineral. The installation was even lent a miniature caparison and parasol among all the paraphernalia you see at temple festivals,” the artist shrugs, recalling the incident at his house near Pattambi in Palakkad district.

The artwork impressed Janardanan’s drawing master in fourth standard. “Good attempt,” said A V Ganapathy, and gave the pupil a prefix — Silpi. The Sanskrit word means the same in Malayalam: sculptor. “Soon, almost everyone in my Peringode village began calling me so. Many don’t know my real name today.”

Silpi Jananadranan working on the face of iconic Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair

Five-and-a-half decades have passed since the future-indicative episode. And Silpi has been a reputed make-up hand for Kathakali since his twenties. What’s more, he went on to become the only chutti artiste of the dance-theatre to engage simultaneously with the costume for the pre-classical performing art of Krishnanattam.

The twin career has taught Silpi a lot of things like none other about the backstage properties of the two art-forms. At 64, he is not eager to list them in one go. “By chance you discover certain curious correlations and arrive at conclusions. Some can be disputable. Yet they are my convictions,” he says nonchalantly. “It’s all there in nature. Only, you need to observe them.”

Bridged views

Silpi was 33 when Guruvayur Devaswom which administers the famed Srikrishna temple recruited him at its Krishnanattam institution. He served the troupe for 23 years, maintaining and modifying its accoutrement, before retiring in 2012. During afterhours, he showed up at Kathakali greenrooms on invitations. And worked on the faces of veterans as well as newcomers. After all, his formal training with the art has been in the mid-1970s as a student at Unnayi Warrier Kalanilayam — a reputed Kathakali school in Irinjalalakuda of Thrissur district.

“If you take the costume items called koppu, Krishnanattam has many more of them vis-à-vis Kathakali. I realised this basic fact soon after joining the Guruvayur institution,” he notes. “Even so, their looks warranted an update. Either dull in colour or meriting a modified shape, I chose to work on them in my little ways.”


It wasn’t easy. “In fact, it was even tricky,” Silpi concedes. “By when I was headed the mission in the 1990s, Krishnanattam had borrowed majorly from Kathakali, which had a dominating influence on the ancient Sanskrit Koodiyattam theatre as well. So I had to ensure that the koppu I altered in whatever dose didn’t add to the identity crisis of Krishnanattam in looks.”

A good sense of colour schemes is essential for a costume artist who is into traditional arts, according to Silpi. “The selection of shade of the border of the cloth covering the puffed-up material round the waist is of importance. Also, its ideal width,” he says. “We out to have the combined wisdom of a creative carpenter and a tailor.”

Why a red skirt for the Little Lord in five-century-old Krishnanattam, when Puranas describe him as Peetambara, one in yellow clothe? “Well,” reasons Shilpi, referring to Zamorin Manaveda (1585-1658) who penned the Sanskit poem Krishnagiti that lends lyrics to the art, “The king typically blesses the boy donned as Krishna going to perform. And would gift the crimson veerali silk. You robe it then and there; that’s the genesis.”

Interventions required

When it comes to Kathakali, Silpi sees a flaw in one fundamental practice of learning chutti. “The students work on a mud-pot with its base up. Get real! The human visage is never that round or smooth,” he points out. “It’s high time we worked on fiber moulds that resemble our faces.”

Silpi Janardanan receiving an honour in 2014

More strikingly, Silpi reveals that his formal debut was without the makeup guru Kalanilayam Parameswaran knowing about it. “In my first year of training, the institution’s troupe once reached Thrissur to perform Kathakali. The chutti man failed to turn up and my teacher was away too. Elders assigned me to work on the face of the evening’s sole character, Krishna. I was bound to obey.”

That said, Silpi cautions against a “general servility” among chutti artists. “Remember, even face-work is not just painting, but sculpting too,” he says, revealing plans to come out with a book on the art. “Sadly, there are no standard procedures in its practice. The loose ends must be tied.”

(The writer follows Kerala’s performing arts. A truncated version of this article appeared in The Hindu (Friday Review) on April 16, 2021.)


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