Tradition and Modernization: Krishnanattam – Palatt Parameswara Panikker

Palatt Parameswara Panicker, Senior Krishnanattam performer and Guru, retired Head of Krishnanattam Gurukulam Guruvayur. He was a part of the old Krishnanattam Kalari that belonged to Samoothiri Kovilakam and later the Guruvayur Kalari. He pioneered bringing aesthetic changes to Krishnanattam plays.

What were the changes that occurred over the past few years in the world of Krishnanattam? Did these changes lead to the loss of the uniqueness of Kala in the current situation, or did they contribute to its growth and beauty?

In the presentation structure and performances of Krishnanattam, there haven’t been too many changes. The traditional format of eight stories remains unchanged, with a focus on presenting them with devotion. Krishnanattam is not merely a performance; it embodies a deep sense of devotion, a tradition that has been upheld since its inception. Before the 1950s, the troupe traveled from place to place for performances. Initially, it was under the patronage of the ‘Samoothiri Kovilakam’. While other traditional performances like Kathakali and Koothu occurred at the venues, Krishnanattam remained distinct, avoiding direct influences from other traditions. During our training, Gurus emphasized refraining from watching Kathakali to prevent any mixing of styles. Nevertheless, subtle changes naturally occurred over time, incorporating various elements into Krishnanattam. Makeup and costumes have evolved significantly, thanks to the contributions of ‘Koppu artist’ Shilpi Janardhanan. These changes, have enriched the art of Krishnanattam.

Similar modifications were made in makeup by Shankaran Nayar, discernible by comparing old photos and new costumes. The process of making chutti with Arimavu (Rice paste) has remained unchanged, although slight modifications have been made to enhance perfection. For instance, the chutti (forehead decoration) was initially rounded but is now flattened. Some elements, like the chutti process, remained consistent; artists never used to lie down for chutti, as the nearby lamp was considered a deity (Bhagavan), and lying near it was deemed disrespectful. Changes in singing have also occurred, with certain ragas being modified and used differently to suit various emotions. Adaptations were made to ensure the appropriate emotional tone; for example, the ‘Padi’ raga was replaced with the Dwijavandi raga in the Avataram story to better match the context.

The Krishnanattam Sangham, upon reaching Guruvayur in 1958, witnessed significant changes under the guidance of Godavarma Thampuran of ‘Mankada Kovilakam’ and Krishnayyar, a singer in Kathakali. While the fundamental elements like ‘Aattam’ remained, aspects of ‘abhinaya’ were codified. Some additions were made, such as incorporating Sandeepani Muni in the swayamvaram play, and refining dance sequences to clarify the roles of characters like Uddavar and gopikas.

Despite these changes, the core framework and conventions have remained intact. The performances now commence late, around 11:30 pm after the temple’s ‘vilakk’, and certain elements like ‘Keli and Thodayam’ are often omitted. Krishnanattam, as the ‘Attam’ of ‘Krishna Kathakali’, remains rooted in devotion and stands as a testament to Bhakti Art, ensuring its enduring legacy.

What were the new changes and improvements that had occurred as your contributions to this art? Similarly, what more can we expect to see without changing but continuing with various aspects in this field?

The possibility for change is limited, but I have come with small changes at the arangu. Basic lessons in Kathakali, and exposure to other art forms helped me to approach the aesthetic side of ‘Krishnattam’. I belong to a family of traditional practitioners of ‘Kanyarkali.’ So the basic knowledge in ‘thalam’ I hail from my tradition.

Our used to insist nt to watch Kathakali or Koodiyattam. So I was always conscious about not to mix Krishnattam with other art forms. The ‘Attams’ are the core of Krishnattam. They are not mere movements based on ‘Thalam’. I emphasised on bringing perfection add ‘bhavam’ to the performance. Earlier we had ‘mudra prayogam’but not in a structured pattern. For instance special sequences such as ‘mullapoo chuttal’ ‘Kuttiye eduthattam’, the dance portion of swayamvaram’, etc. were codified with appropriate addition of bhavas.

There are charecters in Krishnattam with masks. So how to bring bahvas with masks? In such cases we have to use the ‘Aangikam’. Certain movements, steps, body movenets etc. can add the ‘bhava’. ‘Khandakarnnan’sn pravesham’ is an example. We can bring humour with the movements. Another instace is the ‘thiranokku of Narakasuran’, in which eyes wont be clearly seen to the audience, so certain extra movements are added. This is a great understanding that there is bhave even in ‘Angika’. So these were my own additions to Krishnanattam.

Other than such improvisations, we are not allowed to bring a complete transformation. After all we are dedicating our performance to ‘Bhagavan’.

For the children today, the kalaris are not as rigorous as they used to be. However, they should practice with dedication. Understanding the meaning and studying are essential. Every small thing has its own rules. All of this should be followed with dedication. Guruvayurappan takes care of this art, as well as the artists.

Do connoisseurs seek change or do prefer the old? To what extent you have considered audience preference in your presentation?

In the past when it was a part of Samoothiri Kovilakam, and also after coming to Guruvayur, audience approached Krishnattam as a ritual form and we all were respected highly. So there were no much influence of audience. At times some people had commented as it will be good if we alter the system similar to Kathakali. But that is not reuired. If we do so, then there will be no difference between Kathakali, and Kirishnattam. Earlier more people, demanded Krishnattam to follow its on identity. In those venues (Manakal) the audience wre aware of the art form, but always treated us as performers of ‘Bhagavan’. Even today most of the people organise the ‘Kali’ for a certain purpose, as an offereing to ‘Bhagavan’.        

You entered to Krishnanattam befor the ‘Kalari’ was shifted to Guruvayur. Could you remember those days of Samoothiri Kovilakam Kalari and presentations?

Unlike the current syatem, it was a kind of performance travel system. We travel to one venue to other for pre-scheduled presentations. The whole team including performers, vocalists, percussionists, pettikkar (costumers) starts walking from Kozhikode in the month of ‘Makaram’ (January-February), present the ‘kali’ at several temples under the Kovilakam and a few ‘Manakal’ (nambutiri houses) and reach in Guruvayur after 25-30 days. The trave route was from Thrithala, Thrippangottu, Thrikkandiyur, Thirumittakkode, Pattambi. From Pattambi straight to Guruvayur. We received a well respected reception in Guruvayure as we are the troupe of Bhagavan.After the 9days presentation at temple, we had several venues nearby as Punathur Mana, Nenmini Mana, Choondathu Mana, then move to Nelluvay, Deshamangalam, Poomulli Mana, Kothara Mana, Shalleri, Cherppulasseri, Olappamanna Mana, thus through Valluvanadu straight to Palakkad. Panamanna, Kunnathur, Koduvayur, Thannerkkodu, Puthunagaram, manjaloor, and finally at Mankara. From Mankara straight back to Kozhikkode. I don’t remember all places and the order, I was just 15 or 16 years at that time. We reach back in the month of ‘Medom’. Then Edavam and Midhunam we had holidays, and start the practice again in Karkkidakam.

I remember that we received a warm reception everywhere, marked by genuine devotion, even for us, the junior boys of the team. We often meet Kathakali teams during our stops. Our costume maintenance and modifications were sponsored by Mallisseri Mana and Naduvattathachan family during our travels. Palakkal Achyuthan Nair was the senir Guru of the team under Samoothiri Kovilakam. Every four years, four new boys are admitted to the ‘Kalari’ because we require young boys for the role of ‘Avatara Krishnan’ in the play. As they grow older, they take on the character of Kaliyamarddanam Krishnan, and then progress to other roles accordingly. The oil treatments, eye exercises, and body practices remain the same as those practiced in the Kalari, even today.

When the Samoothiri ruling system was on the decline, the Samoothiri Raja dedicated the Kalari to the Guruvayur temple in 1951. This decision aimed to preserve the Kalari and the Krishnanattam tradition from extinction. However, in 1953, the Kalari was reacquired by the Kovilakam, driven by the special interest of the Samoothiri’s children, perhaps to uphold their father’s colorful and grand legacy. Unfortunately, their efforts were not successful, as it proved challenging for the Kovilakam to sustain the tradition as it was before. Consequently, in 1957 or 1958, the Kalari was returned to Guruvayur. Since then, it has continued here in Guruvayur as the sole Gurukulam for Krishnanattam.

Who or what inspired you to approach Krishnanattam as an ‘Art’ and explore new aesthetic developments in the performance?

After the Kalari reached Guruvayur, Padalam Kerala Varma Raja conducted a class on Hasthalakshana Deepika mudras for us. This class proved invaluable in codifying and perfecting the ‘Padams’ and certain ‘Aattams’. I attribute my improvisational skills to my family lineage, enriched by a strong artistic background. The precision in my presentation is a gift from our ‘Kalari,’ where I received training under the guidance of Palakkal Achyuthan Nair Ashaan and Gopalan Nair Ashaan. Additionally, I received training in Kathakali and learned plays such as Lavanasura Vadham and Dakshayagam under VP Ramakrishnan Nair and Sadanam Krishnankutty. I must also mention Cherppulasseri Evunni Kartha, a scholarly figure, whose association greatly inspired me. Working with him on socially relevant dance dramas enhanced my creativity and improvisational techniques.

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