Nelliyode, who immortalised Kali, has left the stage

Characters he brought on the Kathakali stage breathed fire

Nelliyode Vasudevan Namboothiri, who died the other day aged 82, was a consummate Kathakali artiste.

Soft-spoken and humble, the characters he brought on the Kathakali stage breathed fire. He was a sought-after performer across Kerala to enact the characters wearing the chuvanna thaadi (red beard) such as Bali, Sugreevan, Dussasanan, Jarasandhan and Bakan.

New dimension

Nelliyode, as he was known in the Kathakali circuit, gave a new dimension to the portrayal of the deceitful Kali (karutha thaadi or black beard) in Nalacharitham with a detailed depiction of the 12 years he waited on a tree weathering the rain, sunshine, and bone-chilling cold to finally possess Nala at the right time.

“He set the performance structure of Kali, which became a benchmark of sorts,” recalls P. Venugopalan, Malayalam lexicon editor and writer.

Among the favourite disciples of the iconic Kathakali maestro Vazhenkada Kunju Nair, Nelliyode reached Thiruvananthapuram from his native Cheranalloor in Ernakulam in the 1970s to teach Kathakali at Attakkulangara Government High School after a programme to introduce school students to Kathakali was initiated by the then Director of Public Instruction Ramachandran Nair.

While the programme was short-lived, Nelliyode stayed back in Thiruvananthapuram, teaching and performing across Kerala and outside.

Erudite and with a sound footing in ancient Sanskrit texts and the epics, he was able to render Narayaneeyam, Sreeramodantham and Sreekrishnavilasam to Malayalam.

A phenomenal memory helped him by heart most of Kalidasa which enriched his performances.

Along with the fierce chuvanna thaadi characters, he regularly performed kari (black, demonic) characters such as Simhika, Poothana, Nakrathundi and Hidimbi. “The irony is that he would perform the fiercest characters and the most saintly ones [that of Kuchelan, to cite one] with the same characteristic ease,” says Dr. Venugopalan.

In fact, he was sage-like himself and this dichotomy was what Kavalam Naraya Panicker explored in his play Kalivesham.

Nelliyode wrote the performance text (attakkatha) of Rasakreeda and when Dr. Venugopalan brought Cervantes’s Don Quixote into Kathakali, the protagonist Quixote (Alonso Quijano) was played by Nelliyode with elan. It was performed under the auspices of the Casa de la India, an Indo-Spanish foundation, in Spain to rousing reception, recalls Dr. Venugopalan.

Tall and scrawny with a peculiar visage, Nelliyode was best suited to play the character of Quixote-Quijano.

While the performance in Spain in connection with the 400 years of Don Quixote was without any make-up, there was minimal make-up on him when the play was staged in India.

Akademi award

Nelliyode won the Kendra Sangeet Natak Akademi and the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi awards and the State Kathakali Puraskaram among several other honours. He battled cancer for a brief period before succumbing to it. The body was cremated at Vandoor in Malappuram.

He is survived by his wife and two children.

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