A Decade After Exit


A Decade After Exit

Mankompu Sivasankara Pillai retained sobriety in his performances, sticking to the essence of Kathakali’s southern style. A look at the late maestro on his 10th death anniversary….

Sreevalsan Thiyyadi

 Mankompu Sivasankara Pillai 

As many as four exponents taught Mankompu Sivasankara Pillai the fundamentals of Kathakali before the youngster found his cherished guru in the classical dance-theatre. By the time iconic Chengannur Raman Pillai co-opted Sivasankaran into his select set of disciples, the promising acolyte was out of his teens. In fact, he had already debuted on stage. That was in the summer of 1939 — as Lalita in Pootanamoksham. The venue was the Devi temple at his native Mankompu village of south-central Kerala.

Belonging to the British-ruled Travancore kingdom, the paddy-rich Kuttanad belt where Sivasankara Pillai grew was rooted in the ethos of the Kaplingad style of Kathakali. Till his performances in 2003, the exponent maintained his school’s defining features: keen on melodrama, but without compromising on solemnity. The penchant for natural acting stood in stark contrast with the more stylised Kathakali popular up along the state. There it was (and continues to be) known as Kalluvazhi. Curiously, this central-Kerala idiom, which relies on method acting banking on grammar-governed dance, was one which Sivasankara Pillai learned in a second phase of his formative years. But then it was brief, as he exited it for a different pursuit.


 Sivasankara Pillai as Malayathi

Pillai (1922-2014) began his Kathakali studies of the Kaplingad kind as a school-goer. Kalarkode Kuttappa Panikkar of the coastal locality gave him the basic lessons. Then a twist happened in the boy’s life. A celebrated guru of the Kaplingad school was those days living north of Thrissur, teaching at the nascent Kalamandalam (set up in 1930). Thakazhi Kunju Kurup had left such a deep impression on Sivasankaran as a child that he desired to be a pupil of none else. The boy’s parents also liked the idea — and sent him to Ambalapuram near Mulangunnathukavu, which was the initial location of the institution founded by poet Vallathol Narayana Menon.

Just as Sivasankaran’s studies were budding at the tile-roof Sreenivasam Bungalow that housed Kalamandalam, Kunju Kurup got an assignment to teach experimental dancer Ram Gopal in Bangalore. This came as an unexpected blow for Sivasankaran. The institution did come up with a replacement. That was Ambu Panikkar. He belonged to Malabar, where Kathakali revelled in ways that were largely alien to Sivasankaran’s Travancore. Disillusioned over having lost the prospect of training under Kunju Kurup, mid-teen Sivasankaran discontinued three months of monsoon classes under Ambu Panikkar — and returned to Mankompu.

This Onam-eve comeback turned out to be momentous — effectively symbolising the spirit of the harvest festival. For, it ensured that Kaplingad would groom an exemplary performer. Pillai proved keen on not only perpetuating the practices of his school; he even authored a book on its distinguishing features vis-à-vis the others. Kathakali Swaroopam, penned along with the ageing maestro’s younger brother C.K. Sivaraman Pillai, threw fresh light on the form’s historical evolution and subsequent ornamentations borrowed from the folk and more sophisticated arts around. The Malayalam work of 2006 had its share of preparatory travails, releasing three years after Sivasankara Pillai suffered a massive stroke that left him paralysed for the rest of his life.

Core Tutelage

Earlier, in 1935, soon after rebounding to Mankompu from Kalamandalam, Sivasankara Pillai approached Guru Chengannur for tutelage. The master did not object, but suggested four years of further preliminary studies under another teacher in the vicinity. This led Sivasankaran to learn Kathakali under Thakazhi Ayyappan Pillai. That stint came with a bonus: the classes were mostly held at the residence of the celebrated Kathakali guru Thottam Sankaran Namboodiri, also in Thakazhi (20 kilometres south of Alappuzha). Not only did Namboodiri (1881-1943) give Sivasankaran practical tips on honing the boy’s flair in female roles; the master in heroic roles facilitated the disciple to act opposite him.

Sivasankara Pillai, extreme left, along with co-students and guru Chengannur Raman Pillai (sitting)

This kind of an emergence enabled Sivasankara Pillai to specialise in female characters at the outset of his career. As critic V. Kaladharan notes, Pillai’s handling of small, medium and major female roles “instantly established a rapport not only with the titans who enacted the Nayaka and Pratinayaka characters but with the beholders too”. The youngster’s performances in key mythological characters such as Damayanti, Panchali, Mohini and Devayani were “a cut above the rest of his colleagues”, he notes.

 Sivasankara Pillai as Mannatthi 

Crucially, during this stretch, Sivasankara Pillai received a decade’s tutelage under Guru Chengannur (1886-1980). The gurukula training, by living at the teacher’s residence, strengthened both theory and practice: meticulous classes during monsoons and public shows along with the guru across the annual seasons starting from the auspicious Navaratri. This glorious time, too, was studded with extra scholarship. It was courtesy Guru Chengannur’s three years of close association with top scholar Pannisseri Nanu Pillai, also a Kathakali playwright. Sivasankaran’s master was brought into Pannisseri’s house in Maruthoorkulangara near Karunagappalli (present-day Kollam district) to train the poet-researcher’s brother Sivarama Pillai. Guru Chengannur made it a point that Sivasankaran enriched himself from his stay with Pannisseri (1885-1942). The youngster, who had his cerebral pursuits, thus gained immense scholarship in the Puranas as well as Sanskrit even while thoroughly learning the nuances of facial emoting in Kathakali.

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According to late scholar Aymanam Krishna Kaimal, “complete dedication” towards his guides enabled Sivasankaran Pillai to gain proficiency as a performer as well as professor. So much so, in 1966 life came full circle of sorts for Mankompu. Kalamandalam, where he had a brief learning stint in the mid-1930s, invited him as a senior teacher after the government-run institution opened a Thekkan department for promotion of the Kaplingad style of Kathakali. For 18 years till 1984, Pillai taught at Kalamandalam on its new campus in Cheruthuruthy by the river Bharatapuzha with Shoranur town on the other bank. That scripted a long journey for the artiste, who had begun as a palace dancer at Thiruvananthapuram in the early 1940s for the Travancore royal family. It is another matter that Mankompu had, as early as in 1944, gone on a foreign trip. That was to Europe and South America as a pivotal member of troupes led by dancer Mrinalini Sarabhai, who had familial roots in Kerala.

Sivasankara Pillai with Mrinalini Sarabhai

Chennai-born Mrinalini’s maternal village was scenic Anakkara, 35 kilometres west of Kalamandalam. Four years after the above-mentioned tour of her troupe abroad, Mrinalini founded Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in Ahmedabad. Sivasankara Pillai was among the early 1950s tutors in the institution. The artiste, though, didn’t wait for long to wind up the Gujarat chapter, boarding his train back to Kerala — for good.

Full-fledged Kerala career

This also heralded the conclusion of Mankompu’s trysts with other dances. (Sivasankara Pillai had also been in Madras for a while to try his luck with experimental ballets.) Overall, the return ended a relatively dry spell of female roles in Travancore, according to Kathakali artiste Madavoor Vasudevan Nair (1929-2018), a senior disciple of Guru Chengannur. Spanning half-a-century from the early 1950s, Mankompu turned out to be a prolific presence in the state’s Kathakali circuit. He handled a range of roles, more of male — straddling shades from virtuous protagonists to antiheroes to those with comic shades.

Sivasankara Pilai dons a male role with Mathoor Govindankutty. 

Another of Guru Chengannur’s prominent disciples was Chennithala Chellappan Pillai (1924-98). His son Ambujakshan Nair, a Kathakali buff, notes that Sivasankaran Pillai’s eventual settling in Kerala earned him a flurry of stages and a legion of fans. “Often known for his candid views, Mankompu made no qualms in showing his displeasure towards fellow performers’ acts that he thought were distasteful or nonsensical,” Nair recalls. “Once, a well-known and elder actor as Karna conducted in a way that was unbecoming of the eldest Pandava. Back in the greenroom, Mankompu gave him an earful.”

Culture writer Evoor Mohandas notes how Mankompu’s acting would make his physical appearance almost irrelevant. “Kuchelan (Sudama) for one,” he trails off. “Once, when curtains parted and the Krishna-devotee appeared on the dais, I found Sivasankara Pillai’s physique a little bulky for the poor classmate. Soon, as the scene proceeded, I forgot this mismatch. Such was the grace of the bhakti that was oozing out of him.” Another avid Kathakali watcher Unni Krishnan agrees: “As Sudevan, who is the messenger Brahmin in Nalacharitam Moonnam Divasam, Mankompu’s sprightliness would succeed in altering the grim mood typical of the story.”


Sivasankara Pillai at his Mankompu house with aesthetes Evoor Mohandas and Ambujakshan Nair. 

In fact, 20th-century chenda percussionist Kalamandalam Krishnankutty Poduval, renowned for his encyclopaedic knowledge of Kathakali, used to note that Kaplingad stylists of Kathakali invariably excel in grasping the essence of the characters they present, lacing them with a wise touch of humour. Seldom flashy, Sivasankara Pillai’s involvement with the Kathakali of both the south and north fetched him appreciation from a vast segment of enthusiasts. He also won an array of honours that included Sangeet Natak Akademi awards at the national and state level besides that of Kalamandalam and central government’s coveted Tagore Ratna.

Towards the evening of his life, Sivasankara Pillai was bed-ridden and unable to speak. Memories will swell up, especially in the presence of visiting buffs. To recall his heyday, the maestro employed a lighter version of those hand-gestures. After all, the power of those mudras gifted him an exalted status as a Kathakali virtuoso. The master died on March 20, 2014.

(An expansive version of the article appeared in Malayalam in the April-May 2024 edition of ‘Keli’ bimonthly of the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi.)





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