An owner of many ‘firsts’ in Koodiyattam, Girija recently received Sangeet Nataka Akademi award.

Among the recipients of Sangeet Natak Akademi awards announced recently, Kalamandalam Girija’s case is a spectacular one.  For, she has had several ‘firsts’ in the history of the Sanskrit theatre of Koodiyattam.

While Kalamandalam Sivan Namboodiri created history by enrolling as the first non-Chakyar male student in the first batch of students when Koodiyattam was introduced in Kalamandalam in 1965, Kalamandalam Girija followed him in 1971 as the first non-Nangiar female student. Further, she was the first lady teacher of her alma mater and she retired as the first lady head of the department of Koodiyattam.  The age-old caste barriers were thrown overboard by these two thanks to the revolutionary Koodiyattam supremo, Painkulam Rama Chakyar who had the fortitude of presenting the art form for the first time outside the temple precincts.

Guru’s favourite student

Girija joined the Koodiyattam department at the age of 12 when Rama Chakyar was hunting for a girl student. And she was the lone girl in the class. Facilities for classrooms were meager in those days. Classes were held in the two rooms behind the then-popular Raman Nair’s tea shop in Cheruthuruthy. While one room was occupied by Chakyar and his students including her, the other one was inhabited by the mizhavu maestro P K Narayanan Nambiar and his students.

Being the only girl in the class, Chakyar took extreme care in looking after Girija. He would accompany her to the hostel that was opposite the Vallathol Bhavan and even for shopping. While dictating notes, she used to make mistakes; but he would take pains not only to correct them but very often write for her. Kalamandalam Girija is keeping those notes still as a souvenir. She got a companion to her relief when Shylaja joined the department in 1974. Chakyars considered the duo as his granddaughters.

Another ‘first’ to her credit was the privilege of wearing the costumes of the newly designed Nangiarkoothu for the first time. It may be remembered that the revival of Nangiarkoothu commenced in 1974 when Girija started her post-diploma course. Chakyar sent her to Kunjippilla Kutty Nangiaramma at Irinjalakuda for higher training. Nangiaramma taught her many feats like ‘Padapurappadu’ and ‘Kreedas’. Girija staged a full performance of Nangiarkoothu (also for the first time), “Vrindavana Varnana’, in Kalamandalam in 1984; but her Guru did not live long to witness this.  

She had turned almost a pet student for Chakyar who made her don many roles. Within three months of her joining Kalamandalam, she was chosen for the role of Subhadra on Subhadradhananjayam (First Day). It was a public performance in Regional Theatre in Thrissur. As she was more comfortable in evoking veera and karuna rasas and less disposed to Sringara, Lalitha in Soorpanakhangam and Vasavadatha in Swapnavasavadatham have been her favourite roles. In Bhagavathajjukam which Chakyar and edited and choreographed, she presented both the heroine and the cheti (maid companion).

Taking Koodiyattam overseas

She was in the 12 – member team led by Rama Chakyar in the historic foreign tour to Paris in 1980. Soorpanakhangam, Balacharitham, Subhadradhananjayam, Jatayuvadham etc were the plays staged. Every day, the show began with Udyanavarnana which was another choreography of Chakyar. Incidentally, that was the first foreign tour of Koodiyattam which was organised by Milena Salvino, who was also a student of Kalamandalam.  The troupe also staged shows in many European countries as part of this tour.  During later years Kalamandalam Girija travelled with Kalamandalam troupe, Irinjalakuda troupe and also on her own responding to invitations from organisations abroad.

An ace choreographer, Kalamandalam Girija has to her credit Venisamharam (first and sixth acts) and Bhagavathy pravesam in Balivadham. In Nangiarkoothu, Gandharivilapam, Karnolpathy and Madhavi have been her contributions.

A winner of many accolades including those from Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi and Kerala Kalamandalam, Girija served her alma mater for 33 years before retiring in 2014. Her daughter Dr. Salini V G, an accomplished Nangiarkoothu artiste, is an assistant professor of English in NSS College, Ottappalam.


GS Paul is an eminent art columnist and critic. He has been writing for national dailies such as The Hindu for more than three decades. Currently, he is the Editorial Advisor of India Art Review.

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