Kottakkal Sasidharan’s Pakarnnattam: A Unique Autobiography

A random look at his trysts with Navaratri alone can tell Kottakkal Sasidharan’s variety of experiences on and off the stage. The globetrotting dancer’s autobiography completes two years this month

Fourteen years ago, during a tour of the United States, Kottakkal Sasidharan chose to make a call to his native Kerala. It was breakfast time in the wintry North Dakota state when he telephoned a colleague of sorts. That is, a next-generation musician who sings for Kathakali, the classical Indian dance-theatre into which he was initiated as a nine-year-old boy.

It was getting close to midnight in his motherland, Sasidharan knew. Around 11 pm, to be precise. What he didn’t guess was the auspiciousness of the day. It was Vijaya Dashami, informed vocalist Kottakkal Madhu at the other end. What’s more, a Kathakali performance was on adjacent to their alma mater: PSV Natyasangham.

That bit of the news particularly inspired Sasidharan. At his rehearsal in the famed State University at Fargo, the dancer soon gave his students a briefing on the grand Hindu festival that climaxes ten days of celebration. Vijaya Dashami, which comes as a farewell to autumn-time Navratri nights, is when the invocative Durga Puja across his country comes to a halt. If victory of the good over evil is the spirit, in Kerala Vijaya Dashami is when you get back your tools of knowledge submitted before the idol of goddess Saraswati 36 hours ago. The offering can be at homes or temples or schools.

Dashami day for Kathakali artistes

While the most common representation of knowledge is books, Kathakali artistes keep their colourful paraphernalia as well for the puja. And just as children read their books after getting them back on the Dashami morning, the dancers do the symbolic act of performing a few body movements and hand gestures. Sasidharan most likely did make a mention of these details to his pupils at the US university in 2006, though his memoir dodges the details. The focus is on the idea of learning as devotion, which the writer says the American youngsters took in with awe.

Loads of similar experiences define the essence of Pakarnnattam, which came out on the month of Navaratri two years ago. Released on October 23, 2018 at upstate Kozhikode city which is 50 km northwest of the author’s Pandalur village in Malappuram district, the autobiography was released by politician-diplomat Shashi Tharoor MP, who gave away the first copy to renowned percussionist Mattannur Sankarankutty Marar.

A good 24 months thence, the two-part Pakarnattam, published in Malayalam by Grass Roots (an imprint of Mathrubhumi Books) continues to be widely read. The theme is centred round the aesthetics of Kathakali and the scope it lends to experimental choreography, but the story simultaneously unfolds the journey of a rustic boy from north Kerala to the whole of the world where he performs over half a century, winning applauses. The rare twining of artistic intricacies with personal episodes makes the 1,200-odd pages of the opus appealing for lovers of classical dances as well as contemporary literature. True to the meaning of its title, the work delineates in depth the many layers of ‘pakarnnattam’ as a performance technique where the same actor essays multiple roles on the same stage in fairly quick succession.

Kottakkal Deja vu

For instance, taking this year’s Vijaya Dashami date as a milestone to go back in time, October 26, 2006 was when Sasidharan left Fargo for the US capital of Washington DC. Heavy snowfall altered his route. The newly scheduled flight would take him to Minneapolis. A four-hour stopover at the airport there presented Sasidharan with the sight of bustling tarmacs. The flurry of landings and take-offs suddenly reminds him of his teenage days—for a contrasting reason. As a Kathakali student with Natyasangham in the 1960s, he and classmates used to look at the sky in wonder when the odd winged carrier would move in apparent slowness, sending out a drone.

Sasidharan, who learned Kathakali chiefly under Kottakkal Krishnankutty Nair, got a career-defining break by associating with Darpana Academy of Performing Arts in Ahmedabad of the north-western Gujarat state. There, a motherly Mrinalini Sarabhai, the director of the institution she founded in 1949, mentored him in Bharatanatyam and Kuchipudi dances. From 1973, he became a member of faculty at Darpana, involving majorly in productions based on classical dances of the Deccan. That triggered a long and busy string of travels across the country and abroad.

Incidentally, the dancer was destined to celebrate Vijaya Dashami in 2007, too, abroad. That was in London, where he did a post-Puja dance with the anklets handed over from renowned poet Vishnu Narayanan Namboodiri, another Malayali on a UK tour. Going 14 years back from 2006, the artiste’s 1992 Navratri made him busy with an innovative Kathakali production titled Mahishasura Mardini, where he played the antihero demon.

Sasidharan, who lives in Kottakkal with his wife after four decades of life outside Kerala, will turn 70 in the coming summer.

Title Pakarnnattam | Author Kottakkal Sasidharan | Language Malayalam | Pages 1,192 | Price Rs 1,500 | Publishers Grass Root (Mathrubhumi Books)

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