The Lede
Dancing For The Gods

Dancing For The Gods

Rejimon Kuttappan

Kalamandalam Geethanandan lived and died his art – Ottanthulal – an ancient dance form originating in Kerala

Kalamandalam Geethanandan always wanted Ottanthulal – a centuries-old dance and poetic performance in Kerala – to be considered next to divine.

“We have worked closely for the last two decades. He was person who fought for the dignity of the Ottanthulal performers and the art form. On the day of his death also, he talked to me over phone about his dreams and activities. His untimely loss is truly irreplaceable,” Kalamandalam Prabhakaran, Executive Board Member of Kerala Kalamandalam, told The Lede.

Geethanandan, 58, collapsed and died during a performance at Avittathur Mahavishnu Temple in Irinjalakuda near Thrissur in Kerala at around 8 pm on Sunday.

Kerala Kalamandalam, deemed a University of Art and Culture by the Government of India, is a major centre for learning Indian performing arts, especially those that developed in the southern states of India, with a special emphasis on Kerala’s forms.

“Geethanandan was the head of the department of Ottanthulal and I was in charge of examinations. So we would interact daily at least once. I am a researcher in Ottanthulal for the last 20 years, so we used to share our experiences and try our best to make the art form the best one in the world,” Prabhakaran said.

“Even today Ottanthulal artists get only Rs 5000 per play and that too, most of the time the performances are scheduled in the afternoon. He was against that. He used to refuse such offers. He always used to ask, you can pay Rs 5 lakhs for an elephant to be hired in a temple festival but can’t pay a decent amount for the artist,” Prabhakaran added.

Introduced in the 18th century by Kunchan Nambiar, one of the Prachina Kavithrayam (three famous Malayalam language poets), Ottanthulal is accompanied by a Mridangam (a barrel shaped double headed drum).

Maruthorvattom Kannan, an Ottanthulal artist with three decades of performance experience said that Geethanandan always thrived to preserve the purity and perfection of the art form. “We have a lot to learn from him. His death is untimely. We may feel sad but at the same time, an artiste passing away while performance is seen as a blessing and the luckiest thing to happen in an artiste’s life,” Kannan said.

“If he was alive, he could have taken the art form to a much higher level,” Kannan who has maintained a close relationship with Geethanandan added.

Geethanandan had been a faculty member for more than 25 years at the Kalamandalam’s Ottanthulal department and had retired in March 2017. Upon his request, Prabhakaran had nominated Geethanandan as a guest lecturer at Kalamandalam.

Kalamandalam Subran, an Idakka (an hourglass-shaped drum from Kerala in south India) artist, who shared the stage with Geethanandan for eight long years, said he has no words to describe the expertise of Geethanandan. “It was Geethanandan who made the use of Idakka more popular in Ottanthulal. He was a great artist. I am not sure, whether I will meet somebody like him in the future,” Subran said.

It was in 1974 that Geethanandan joined Kalamandalam as a Thullal student. According to Subran, Geethanandan had shared the stories of struggle in attaining his dream of learning Ottanthulal.

“His father Keshavan Nambeesan was not in a position to afford the expenses for securing admission for Geethanandan in Kalamandalam. And finally, it was E Sreedharan, the Metroman, who helped him by getting the admission fees,” Subran added.

Geethanandan’s maiden performance in Thullal was at the age of nine. After completing the studies at Kalamandalam, he joined the institution as a Thullal teacher in 1983 and later became the head of the department.

He also won the Veerasringala and Thullal Kalanidhi award. Geethanandan was the first artist to present Thullalpadha Kacheri (a rendition of Thullal in a musical format). Geethanandan was also the first artist to perform Thullal at Paris. He performed at 10 venues in France in 1984.

He also acted in many Kerala movies including Kamaladalam, Manasinakkare, Thoovalkottaram and Irattakuttikalude Achan.

He had also performed at nearly 5000 venues in India, Muscat, Qatar, UAE and Bahrain. He also has some noted talents in his students’ list, including Neena Prasad and Kavya Madhavan.

Chandran Nair, a Thullal exponent in Thiruvananthapuram with three decades of performance experience, said that they have lost a good co-artist. “Geethanandan was very humble and always cheerful. He was quite focused on improving the art. We follow different paths in the art. But we always had high respect for him. And his expertise and humbleness deserved it,” Chandran added.