Maestro of the Mizhavu

Kalamandalam Unnikrishnan Nambiar

Mizhavu maestro Kalamandalam Unnikrishnan Nambiar traces his journey behind the majestic copper pot.

A few minutes with Kalamandalam Unnikrishnan Nambiar transports you to the days when excelling in an art form did not translate into a few marks that enhanced your prospects of entry into the corridors of the professional colleges.

He harks back to the age when the world was not yet a stage for a performer, and one trained in the traditional arts because it was an inheritance handed down from generation to generation. The art remained supreme, and the practitioner a ‘kalopasakan’ for life. It is abundantly clear that Nambiar, who was mentored in the gurukulam method, underwent an unmistakable tempering in the process.

As a mizhavu artiste, his presence behind the majestic copper pot that resonates in a koothambalam during a Koothu, Koodiyattam or Nangiarkoothu performance is alive in our memories of evenings at the Margi in Thiruvananthapuram. The total negation of the self in this seasoned practitioner of the mizhavu reveals the equanimity that grows from embracing the arts as a part of a lifestyle. Training in an age when watertight academic courses had not been begun, Nambiar’s training in mizhavu also introduced him to Padhakam, Koothu, Chutti and make-up for Koodiyattam. He was selected to conduct research and study in Italy on ‘Dragon Bond Right’, a contemporary dance form, which sought to blend traditional dances of Japan, Korea, Cuba, and India. He had the privilege of participating in festivals held in Japan, France, the United Kingdom and the Drum Festival in Korea (2005).

Kalamandalam Unnikrishnan Nambiar speaks of his five decades in the field.

Early influences

My mother, Padmini Nangiar, of the Thekkenambiar Madham in Edanadu was a Nangiarkoothu performer. It was only in keeping with the practice of the times that I trained in the traditional form, beginning my early training on the mizhavu under my uncle E.K. Narayanan Nambiar. Our family enjoyed performance rights in temples in Thriprayar, Peruvanam and Nayathodu. At the age of seven, my arangettam was held at the Karthyayani Temple in Edanadu.

Training at Kerala Kalamandalam

Mizhavu as a subject of specialisation had not begun at Kalamandalam when I joined the institution at the age of 13. A separate department for mizhavu was instituted under Guru P.K. Narayanan Nambiar in 1967; I became the first student of mizhavu. The learning that happened here was not limited to the mizhavu; it was a wholesome process, encapsulating the total form of Koothu and Koodiyattam.

Learnings from the Gurus

After my training under Nambiar Asan, I had the good fortune to learn from the gurus who were custodians of this Sanskrit theatre form. With Painkulam Rama Chakyar Asan at Kalamandalam, the skill with Sanskrit slokams for Chakyarkoothu and Padhakam was ingrained in me. In 1974 when I was unemployed, Guru Ammanur Madhava Chakyar asked me to accompany him for a performance. That opened a new path for me. In true gurukula style, I spent all my days with him, every moment, offering a learning that can only come with association with the masters. The next significant stage in life was with Guru Moozhikulam Kochukuttan Chakyar who became head of Margi, which started in 1981. Ammanur Asan, who was visiting faculty here, felt that I could handle the mizhavu for the performances and train new learners.

New learners

At least 10 years of dedicated practice is required to groom a good mizhavu player. Modern-day schooling is demanding, therefore, the young aspirant can devote very little time to train in a traditional art form. For many, it is not the enthusiasm to learn the percussion, but the need to secure a few marks that will fast-forward his entry into a professional college, or, the lure of a stipend! Yet, there are a couple of learners who are here for the long haul.

Sustaining interest in the mizhavu

It has been my desire to put down my experiences as a practitioner of the mizhavu in the form of a book, as well as incorporate the function of the instrument in a performance. A publication of this kind would evoke greater interest and better understanding in the new viewer. And, that is what I’m now working on.

The Article can be accessed  here.