The story of Kerala Kalamandalam, among India’s most important centres for the performing arts, is interlinked with that of Kathakali, the dance form that once prospered under royal patronage. As this munificence began to dry up at the beginning of the 20th century, it practically orphaned the dance-theatre and various other classical arts of Kerala. It was against this backdrop that national poet Vallathol Narayana Menon held a discussion with the local ruler, Manakkulam Valiya Kunjunni Raja, who had a fully equipped Kathakali yogam (troupe) in his palace. Raja’s nephew, Manakkulam Mukunda Raja, also joined them. After considering various options, the trio established Kerala Kalamandalam, registering it as a charitable society in 1927 at Kozhikode.
Koothambalam at the Kerala Kalamandalam.
It was not only a realisation of their dream but an epochal moment in the history of Kathakali when, on November 9, 1930, Kunjunni Raja lit the traditional lamp in his palace to mark the birth of Kerala Kalamandalam. Incidentally, that day was also Vallathol’s 52nd birthday. The institution, now a deemed university, completed 90 years on November 9. The traditional ‘navathy’ celebrations have had to be postponed due to the pandemic.
The benevolent Kunjunni Raja gifted the entire staff, students and paraphernalia of Kathakali training he held to Kalamandalam. As the students increased, the institution was shifted to Srinivasam Bungalow owned by Mukunda Raja at Mulankunnathukavu near Thrissur. Extensive tours were undertaken by Vallathol and Mukunda Raja to popularise Kathakali beyond the barriers of language, religion and geographical boundaries.
In 1938, the Maharaja of Cochin granted a hectare on the picturesque banks of River Nila, where Kalamandalam was finally shifted. The Nila Campus is presently the campus for the university’s postgraduate courses.
The expansion not only meant better infrastructure, it also meant the ability to offer training in other performing arts. Mohiniyattom, which was on the verge of extinction, was introduced as a separate department in 1932.
The statue of Vallathol Narayana Menon at the entrance to the Kerala Kalamandalam (seen in the background) .
In 1941, the government of Cochin issued a proclamation to take over the institution, and Vallathol became the chairman of the managing committee. Angry with this move, Mukunda Raja resigned as secretary. In 1955, for its silver jubilee celebrations, Jawaharlal Nehru visited Kalamandalam and donated ₹1 lakh.
The birth of the State of Kerala in 1956 augured well. The first government headed by E.M.S Namboothiripad, an admirer of the arts, elevated Kalamandalam to a grant-in-aid institution and the administration was handed over to an executive board. The system continued until 2007, when Kalamandalam became a Deemed University.
Vallathol had passed away in 1958, but by then the institution had already produced legends in Kathakali like Krishnan Nair, Ramankutty Nair, Padmanabhan Nair, Vazhankada Kunju Nair and Gopi; Neelakantan Nambissan in vocal music; Krishnankutty Poduval and Appukutty Poduval in percussion, and Kalyanikutty Amma and Sathyabhama in Mohiniyattam.
The introduction of Koodiyattam in 1966 was a major decision for the institution. For the first time in the history of the ancient Sanskrit theatre, non-Chakyars and non-Nambiars were able to learn the art, breaking age-old tradition.
Over the years, Kalamandalam has upheld the spirit of a secular approach to the arts, producing artistes such as Kalamandalam Hydrali, the well-known Kathakali musician, and Kalamandalam John, Kathakali dancer, whose institution Kalatharangini has branches across Europe.
A Kathakali play being staged in Koothambalam at Kerala Kalamandalam Deemed Cultural University at Cheruthuruthy near Thrissur
In 1973, the institution moved to a sprawling campus in Vallathol Nagar, to which it added a marvellous Koothambalam or theatre in 1977.
After 2007, dovetailing the diploma courses with university education was not an easy job for the first vice-chancellor Dr. K.G. Paulose and registrar Dr. N.R. Gramaprakash. After their exit in 2011, the institution had to wait till 2018 before the experienced academician, Dr. T.K. Narayanan, arrived. “I had to start from scratch. Academic bodies had to be constituted and deans appointed. Efforts are now on for accreditation by the National Assessment and Accreditation Council. The ‘deemed’ status has to be shed, as it makes us ineligible for UGC grants,” he says. .
Kalamandalam offers 12 undergraduate and post-graduate courses apart from M.Phil and PhD in the classical performing arts of Kerala including percussion ensembles and ‘chutti’ (make-up and costumes). A major contribution of Kalamandalam has been in redesigning the costumes of Kathakali, Koodiyattam and Mohiniyattam.
Where it lags behind is in an inadequate curriculum. Renowned artiste and former principal, Kalamandalam Gopi, who has pointed out that the curriculum needs to be redrafted by an expert committee, was nominated to the executive board recently.
The writer and culture critic is a trained musician.