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Nelliyode Vasudevan Nambootiri (1940-2021) Master of Pernici

While a majority of the characters that Nelliyode Vasudevan portrayed were pernicious, in reality, he was a devoted, god-fearing reverent brahmin and a tantri (the final authority to decide upon and set the rituals and rules in a temple) attached to several temples in Kerala. On stage, he was equally proficient with all the four core elements of his characters – ookku, nokku, alarcha and pakarcha (vigour, look, roar and transmission, respectively). Nelliyode’s performance elevated the stage presence and stature of such roles, backed by his sound knowledge of our epics, Sanskrit literature, and other art traditions. Moreover, he was well-read and very current, and all these labelled him distinctive from all his clans; he hardly displeased anyone.

For caste reasons, the orthodox namboodiris and their families always preferred Nelliyode, whose presence their kith and kin used to update on puranic stories and conducted poojas such as Ganapati homam at his hosts’ illam (the traditional namboodiri home). He managed to have his bath even from the flights during his performance travels and performed the three customary sandhyavandanam (prayers during prabhata, pradosha and madhyana sandhya) that invariably stunned the nearby passengers and the stewards.


We knew each other well since the late 1980s, irrespective of our age difference. Most of our interactions were during accidental meetings on travel than at Kathakali venues. Humour was inherent in Nelliyode, both during the freewheeling chats and on stage whenever there were opportunities. Once, during a lecture demonstration of Kathakali at a school, to make the students well-involved, Nelliyode showed the hand gesture for lotus followed by a question and asked what the mudra stood for. Many of them said, “flower”. But one naughty boy stood up and said “monkey”. The teachers became furious at this insult to a renowned exponent of the art. But Nelliyode quietly told the boy, “My dear, please look at my hands and name the mudra and not on my face!” The boy was shattered. Only a person of his eminence could overcome such a situation with inherent humour.

Right from the eras of Ramanattam (Kathakali’s predecessor), in tadi (taadi) roles, recorded only a few outstanding performers such as Bali Otikkan (C1700; acclaimed for his role as Bali and thus the moniker and the first brahmin actor) and his contemporary Kartyayani (the first known female performer but believed to be androgynous). Because the actors in lead roles and master trainers always got more prominence in our chronicle. Roles in red and black beard types (chuvannataadi and kari) invariably went to artists physically taller, and/or the facials were not so ideal for the costuming of characters in pacha or kati attire or female roles in the minukku category or did not earn a proper training. Many artists bright in female roles such as heroine or heroine’s maid during their adolescent days became tadi actors later due to physical changes.

By the late 1960s, in his twenties, Nelliyode earned fame as a young, up-and-coming brilliant actor for depicting malicious roles of Kathakali. That was a time the legends of their lifetime, Vellinezhi Nanu Nair (1910–1987) and Chambakkulam Pachu Pillai (1907–2004; brother of guru Gopinath), dominated, respectively, in the Kathakali arenas of north and south Kerala for tadi portrayals.

“During the European tour of Kerala Kalamandalam in 1966 was Nelliyode’s maiden performance of Dussassana with my raudra Bheeman. Since then, we have performed these roles together at hundreds of stages. We have given many performances of Kuchelavritam; his Kuchelan and my Krishnan,” reminiscenced octogenarian Kalamandalam Gopi.

Other noteworthy stage partnerships of Nelliyode were as Sugreevan for the Bali of Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair (1914-1990) in Bali Vadham, Nrisimha with Chengannur Raman Pillai (1885–1980) as Hiranyakasipu (Prahladacharitam), Kuchela for the Krishna of Mankulam Vishnu Namboodiri (1900–1981) and Bali of Balivijayam with Ramankutty Nair (1926–2013) as Ravana and Padmanabhan Nair (1928–2007) as Narada. He performed Sugreeva for the Bali of Padmanabhan Nair as well.

Nelliyode was his family epithet. They hailed from Cheranalloor at Ernakulam. When he was a boy, the family, known as hereditary priests of temples, migrated to Vandoor in Malappuram. During the entire period of his artistic life, Nelliyode’s shelter for professional reasons was Tiruvananthapuram, where he moved to in 1975 as a teacher at Attakulangara Government Central High School. Nevertheless, as a freelancer, he performed Kathakali all over. Post Nanu Nair and Pachu Pillai, Nelliyode was the first choice of any organiser . His performance pluck made several highly connected aficionados who were/are also profoundly prejudiced and passionate about the southern style of Kathakali as his patrons. However, Nelliyode, trained under Vazhengata Kunchu Nair (1908–1981) from the Kottakkal PSV Natyashangam and Kerala Kalamandalam, was deeply wedded to the northern style. Not only that, Nanu Nair was more or less his model in such tamasic roles.


What earned him fame and fans all across was his roles in chuvanna tadi type (red beard attire) such as Dussasana (Duryodhana Vadham), Trigarthan (Utharaswayamvaram), Jarasandha (Rajasooyam-Vadakkan) and Bakan (Baka Vadham). Plays adapted from the Mahabharata and Bali and Sugreevan of the Ramayana play Bali Vadham. The performance and the stage mannerisms of a devious Kali of the Nalacharitam episode mentioned in the Mahabharata as a sub-story was another noteworthy role that he enhanced substantially. Bali’s act of churning the milk ocean to remind of his prowess to Sugreeva and Jarasandha’s teasing of Krishna were among his classy shots.

What a contrast; on stage, the epitome of all sorts of tamasic breed and, in real life, an unobtrusive and down-to-earth god-fearing brahmin! These divergent elements of Nelliyode’s life made the late Kavalam Narayana Panikkar (1928-2016) pen the poem Kalisantharanam (1978) and, subsequently, the play Kalivesham (2003) as well. Unable to attend its premiere, I watched Kalivesham’s second staging along with Kavalam when it was staged at Ernakulam under the aegis of Chhau exponent Gopal Dubey. During our next meeting, I asked Nelliyode about the play. After a pause, he reflected with a gentle smile, “That’s the outcome of Kavalam’s aesthetic mind. Yes, during the initial years of my artistic life, it did give me some mental ordeals. However, prayers helped me surpass it.”

On the Kathakali stage, Nelliyode unveiled the aesthetics and theatrics of such roles, bringing prominence to secondary characters. At times, humour was also inherent in his inimitable portrayals. In Duryodhana Vadham, while disrobing Draupadi, she curses Dussassana that Bheema will kill him by piercing the chest. Nelliyode’s Dussassana often held the tip of the kottavacha uthareeyam (the long, pleated cloth pieces in multiple colours with tucks like a flower at both ends, worn by male characters around the back of the neck and hangs till the waist) like a gorgeous pot and received it as if she was presenting a bundle of wealth. He also gives a lecherous look at her and the audience by protruding his large and reddened eyes. The asari (carpenter; minukku-male) of Baka Vadham showed an aversion with the left hand while simultaneously extending the right hand in an eagerness to accept when remuneration was offered.

During Kali’s ilakiyattam (inter-polative acting), Nelliyode detailed Kali’s wait through various climatic seasons to find something not so holy to torment Nala for marrying such a captivating beauty Damayanti. Once while Nala was washing his feet for the evening prayer, his heel was not adequately cleaned, and this flaw facilitated Kali to enter him. (Probably an incidence from the epic relevant during the current era of global pestilence.)

For people not well-versed with

the interpolative acting methodology of Kathakali, the gestures, and epic story, such long detailing may be boring. But, on the other side, it glued the knowledgeable audience to their seats. The situation of Kali during the four independent climatic seasons – winter, summer, monsoon, and post-monsoon – are typical of his own, Nelliyode style. Another act is of a frail Kuchela’s (minukku-male) trudge to Dwaraka through the audience and the remembrance of Krishnaleela, evoking and diffusing bhakti rasa all around. He hardly played for the gallery or banked only upon such characters’ bullish textual pictures.

His tiranottam (the stylised and dramatic looking over through the curtain during the first entrance by characters in the category such as kati, tadi, kari) of Kali came immediately after the highly captivating sringara abhinaya by Nala and Damayanti soon after their wedding, brought another dramatic contrast. His steps towards the stage from the green room were equally worthy, with distinctive traits. The slightly crippled type calf with a bend added charm to his steps. He was also well aware that his face was not appropriate for hero roles, in pacha and kati attire, and heroines (minukku-female). He turned such physical disadvantages to his advantage for roles with beard (tadi) and minukku-male such as Kuchela.

The black-beard characters of Kathakali, both male and female types and respectively labelled as kari (karuta tadi roles such as Kattala, the hunter, of Nalacharitam rantaam divasam and Kiratam) and pen kari (the demoness, for instance, Nakratunti of Narakasura Vadham and Simhika of Kirmeera Vadham) were also his forte.

With his base on oath (the veda recital) that a namboodiri boy was supposed to learn, Nelliyode learnt Sanskrit by himself. He translated Sreeramodantham, Sreekrishnavilasam and Narayaneeyam into Malayalam from Sanskrit. I am told that the translation of Sankaracharya’s Saundaryalahari was ready for publication. Equally adept was his skill as a poet. He wrote and choreographed the Kathakali play Rasakreeda. His book Aadopatantavam highlighted his concept of the types of roles that brought him laurels. He even choreographed purappatu (the set dance composition initially taught to the trainees and performed as a prelude to the play) for the chuvanna tadi part to elevate its status.

Usually, after his performance, Nelliyode removed the make-up quickly and preferred to watch the performance of others, even if juniors were on stage. Many pupils learned Kathakali under him, mainly capsule forms for school-college level youth festival competitions. Due to this, and as he was not a regular trainer at any known Kathakali institutions, Nelliyode could not groom any disciples of repute. His place in the modern history of Kathakali is as a classy performer of negative roles.

When Kalimandalam, Triprayar decided to stage Gurudeva Mahatmyam, the story of the towering social reformer and an advocate of the downtrodden Sree Narayana Guru (1856-1928), as Kathakali based on the repertoire composed by Kalamandalam Ganeshan, Nelliyode came forward to choreograph it and also acted in the role of Ayya Guru. However, when the tantri of the Triprayar temple declined permission to stage the play inside the temple, Nelliyode, a reputed tantri of several temples, openly protested against it. He said, “Sree Narayana Guru is among the three gurus I worship.” All these shocked many brahmin clans as Narayana Guru belonged to the Ezhava community (other backward castes) and lived with the principle “one caste, one religion, one God.”

The honours bestowed upon Nelliyode included the awards of Kerala Kalamandalam (1999), State Sangeeta Nataka Akademi (2000), Central Sangeet Natak Akademi (2001), and the Kathakali Puraskaram (2014), the highest distinction of Kerala Government to an artist, along with several other regional accolades.

Bali, Dussassana, and Kali (considered as hero roles among the tadi types) and ninam (meaning blood; the part in kari who are defeated and deformed with their nose and breasts chopped off by a character of divine nature) were his best portrayals. (The ninams of Kathakali are wounded Nakratunti of Narakasura Vadham and Simhika of Kirmeera Vadham; the play Khara Vadham, in which Surpanakha appears as ninam, is not usually performed for decades).

Nevertheless, Nelliyode considered Bali dearer to his heart. “Bali’s death is from the hands of Lord Rama after questioning the rectitude of his action,” was his rationale. The verses during Bali’s last breath, Sreevalsa valsa Rama, Sree Narayana, Govinda muktim dehi, was always his prayer and desired salvation while performing this particular scene.

He was diagnosed with a tumour in the pancreas, with surgery impossible at that phase. The physician informed his son that his last day was very near. The next day after his demise in August 2021, his granddaughter circulated a voice message to their relatives and friends to avoid assumptions. She disclosed that they kept it a secret, not informing Nelliyode and his wife to prevent panic. An excellent gesture to avoid advance condolences and sympathies and analytical discussions on social media that many are deeply fond of.Nelliyode passed away by chanting “Sreevalsa valsa Rama! Sree Narayana! Govinda! muktim dehi”, as per this message.