Kerala’s Renaissance Man

Johny ML

Kavalam Narayana Panicker is no more. In his hay days, the arrival and departure of death would've been with the evocative chanting of folk rhythms. When he died yesterday at the age of 88, nothing of that sort happened. In northern India, it had come a week before, taking one of the finest theatre personalities named Gopal Sharman, who had established the famous Akshara Theatre with his wife Jalabala Vaidya. Like Sharman, Kavalam too had interpreted Ramayana and other epics in his own perspective. A presentation of such works today with the same vehemence, satirical sting and experimental verve would've brought him severe criticism from the fundamentalist forces working in our country.

Kavalam, who stood at the threshold of Modernism in Indian theatrical practices, led it to newer avenues where the audience initially witnessed those experiments with space, time and action in complete awe, then in scorn and finally in absolute acceptance. Doyens of theatre like C.N. Srikantan Nair and G. Sankara Pillai, along with poets like Dr. Ayyappa Paniker, were looking for a new language of literature and theatre, and Kavalam was one among those vanguards. Modernism in India was a Janus like creature. It had to be 'modern' in the temporal sense, and at the same time, as a newly independent country, India had to look for something indigenous to practice its own modernism. Breaking the rules of the proscenium theatre was one of the ways these pioneers adopted to usher in the experimental theatre. They had the modern European playwrights like Ibsen, Ionesco and Brecht as their models.


Led by M. Govindan from the then Madras, the vanguards of literature and theatre moved to Kerala in 1960s and 1970s. The atmosphere was conducive to such changes. Kavalam, like his peers, read epics in his own fashion and located the modern man in the quagmire of multiple narratives found in the epics as well as the secular literature. His *Avanavan Kadamba* and *Daivathar* became a rage amongst the theatre activists, creating benchmarks for the experimental theatre. To establish an indigenous theatre movement, Kavalam knew that it was pertinent to dig into the treasure troves of Kalidasa's oeuvre. He also realized the fact that modern theatre evoked the same responses even among the foreign audience for the universality of the themes, whether it was from Kalidasa, Bhasa or Shakespeare. By breaking the time-space correlative in his theatre, Kavalam could establish a theatre with his own stylistic specialities. He drew a lot from the traditional performing arts including Thullal, Kootthu and Kathakali, and all those ritualistic practices pertaining to farming, harvesting and pagan idol worship. Kavalam constantly tried to transcend the demarcating lines between the Margi and Desi forms of art. The transcendence of theatrical, histrionic, lyrical and narrative grammars gave birth to the typical Kavalam style.

Kavalam was instrumental in getting actors like Nedumudi Venu and Bharath Gopi, training them in his 'school' of theatre before they emerged as big time actors in the Malayalam film industry. The presence of Kavalam and his folks like Venu, Gopi and Aravindnan (director) even helped changed the style of film narratives in late 1970s and 80s. Kavalam's contributions as a poet and lyricist changed the 'domesticated' Malayalam lyricism prevalent in the film industry into an ensemble of rhythms, chanting and wailing: a new sonic experience for the cultural Malayalee. Kavalam was erudite, sophisticated and authoritative. He easily moved between theatre, literature, films and television. He was a Renaissance man in Kerala's cultural scenario. Kavalam experimented with Sanskrit plays like *Karnabharam* (with superstar Mohanlal as the main performer,) which was seen as a revolutionary feat in the post-modern times when Sanskrit itself was contested as a Brahminical language. In future, Kavalam would be critiqued for his precarious discursive positioning within the folk and tribal cultures that he had adopted and co-opted in his theatrical as well as literary works.