Dr C. P. Unnikrishnan – Scholar, Kathakali Exponent

Scholar, Kathakali artist, choreographer, educationist, gadget geek – these are only some of the several ways one could describe Dr C. P. Unnikrishnan. Born in Ernakulam and with strong roots in Palakkad and Kozhikode, Dr Unnikrishnan is an alumnus of the Wilson College, Mumbai. After obtaining a doctorate in human physiology, everyone expected him to follow the path of research. But the pull of Kathakali, the mesmerising dance form unique to Kerala, was too strong and Dr Unnikrishnan returned home to follow his passion.

Photo courtesy: Video grab from Dr Unnikrishnan’s YouTube channel

Edited excerpts from a long conversation:

Veena Narayan: Please share some childhood memories.

Dr C. P. Unnikrishnan: I was born in Ernakulam and went to the Sree Rudra Vilasam UP School for the first two years. But, I have strong connection to Palakkad since my father’s family belonged to Palakkad. In fact, he is a native of what is today known as ‘kalagramam’ – Vellinezhi.

Two childhood memories stand out vividly. My maternal grandfather was a well-known patron of arts and often Kathakali artists who had come to perform would stay on at our ancestral home till they were called away for their next assignment. So people in the large joint family of more than thirty members got to learn several art forms from master practitioners themselves. Evenings were the time for bhajans after the lamps were lit. After the bhajans, someone would start a story in the Harikatha Kalakshepam tradition, or someone would dance like the Kathakali artists they had seen performing, or play a musical instrument.

This particular incident stands out in memory: Father and an uncle used to take me to watch Kathakali performances. I was still a child and had dozed off during a performance of the Kathakali play Duryodhana Vadham. Father woke me up during the climax of the play and I opened my eyes to see Rowdra Bheema in all his terrifying glory. The artists playing Bheema and Dushasana were running on stage and through the audience. Though I was terrified I didn’t fail to notice the beauty and colour of the costumes. While negotiating narrow alleyways during dusk sometimes Rowdra Bheema haunted me. Finally, my grandmother had to have an amulet tied to my wrist for the terror to subside. Years later I had the good fortune to perform Rowdra Bheema, the very character who had scared me and with the same artist who had performed the character then.

Another clear memory is of sitting on the sands in front of a shrine at Calicut (now Kozhikode). Our family shifted to Calicut because my father who used to work for the Philips Radio Company was transferred. I had gone to a temple called Kiliparambathukavu to watch a ‘thira’. I was fascinated by the crown of the artist playing the goddess. It was several feet tall, bright red and decorated with kuruthola (tender leaflets of the coconut palm used as decoration). It was late into the night. There were fire torches lit everywhere and only very few electric lights. That added to the atmosphere. It inspired fear but was beautiful at the same time. I wanted to the see the performance till the end but was called away on Mother’s orders. The vision stayed with me. I was filled with awe and reverence. I was able to fulfil my wish and watch a thira performance forty six years later, though at a different temple.  

VN: I’ve heard it said that you went off to Bombay University to study medicine. Is that correct?

Dr Unnikrishnan: It was not medicine. I went to Wilson College that was under Bombay University. In those days they offered a course where you could branch out into medicine after the first two years. I was good at dissection and drawing and my professor wanted me to become a surgeon. I chose not to pursue medicine because I didn’t like the way certain doctors discussed the patients’ illness as though they were not present, as though their feelings mattered little. I continued with human physiology and obtained a doctorate. I had the opportunity to join many reputed institutions as Senior Research Fellow but I wanted to come back to Kerala; the pull was strong. So I came back and joined Central Marine Fisheries Research Institute. In those days things were very relaxed at CMFRI and I could follow my artistic interests without any difficulty.

VN: When did you start learning Kathakali?

Dr Unnikrishnan: I started learning formally at the age of twenty three. I already knew many of the mudras and the different foot movements because of our informal Kathakali sessions after the evening bhajans at home and the close interactions with many Kathakali artists. My home always had this ambience in which Kathakali was an integral part. But I had this burning desire to learn in a formal manner and so I pursued my guru relentlessly, till he consented to teach me.

VN: Interesting. Who was your guru? Why did you have to pursue him?

Dr Unnikrishnan: My guru is Kalamandalam Gopinath. He would promise to come home on a certain day, but never turn up. So I would go and wait for him and meet him at the end of a performance and request him to come. He would promise me and again the same thing would be repeated. I think he doubted my seriousness and commitment.

Finally, one day he turned up and was full of doubts as to my ability. Will your fingers be pliable enough to show the required mudras? What about the foot movements that require different speeds? I requested him to please try me out for two days. If he didn’t find me good enough, I told him we could give up the effort. He began by asking me to show him the mudras I knew. When I did, he corrected the positions and alignment. Then he asked me to do foot movements. Again he made corrections. Then he asked me to do certain stylised body movements and when I did, he asked me if I’d learnt kalaripayattu. I guess my earlier training in Kalaripayattu at Kozhikode helped. But after that day, he didn’t express any doubts and came regularly to teach me.

When people ask me whether I learnt in the gurukula tradition, I say yes, but the guru came to my kulam (home). My guru is a very generous, open person; not worldly wise. He never mentioned what his fee would be. It was my mother who opened an account in Bank of Baroda and deposited a certain amount every month in his name. He came to know about it sixteen years later!

I am also eternally grateful to my guru for having introduced me to Bharata Muni’s Natya Shastra which I feel is a very modern text.

VN: Could you just elaborate on that?

Dr Unnikrishnan: There are so many things in the Natya Shastra that modern education would benefit from. An example that easily comes to mind is the methodology of research. Observation, analysis of data, isolating the problem, coining hypothesis to solve the problem, experimenting, re-consultation, standardisation, drawing inference, declaration of ambience – these are the steps detailed by Bharata.  

VN: Coming back to Kathakali – When was your formal arangettam – your first performance?

Dr Unnikrishnan: Actually, I performed a solo character, normally done by senior artists, before my arangettam, of course with my guru’s approval. I did Poothana Moksham for the Annual Day celebrations at CMFRI. My guru told me that I should have a formal arangettam, with all the rituals – praying at the temple, seeking the blessings of the guru. This happened sometime after the CMFRI programme and I played Krishna in Rukmini Swayamvaram.

VN: But how did you get into teaching science? And that too at the school level?

Dr Unnikrishnan: I was interested in education. I had always felt that collegiate education was not the most important period during the evolution of a personality. Teaching in school is the real challenge. Teaching in college does not require high level teaching skills. There was also a personal reason. A career in school would leave me enough time and freedom to pursue my art. In fact, that was the only condition I put forth to the principal and she graciously accepted it and adhered to her promise throughout. I first got introduced to her when I went to choreograph a ballet for the school. She was impressed with what I did and offered me the job of a science teacher. I accepted but put forth this condition.  

VN: Your opinion about the role of art in education.

Dr Unnikrishnan: Art should not be limited to an art period alone. While it is important to have a designated time to learn painting or music or dance, teachers of all subjects should integrate art into their teaching.

Dana Foundation has done research on art and the brain. The study I’m referring to, involved students who were labelled poor academic performers. These students were then taught some form of art like painting, sculpture, music, instrumental music, dance, theatre etc. It was found that after six to seven months the academic scores of these students started improving. They were not being given any special coaching for academic subjects. After around eleven months, eighty per cent of these students were performing better than the toppers of the class. This shows the importance of art in education.

Dr C. V. Raman was approached by someone who wanted him to teach Maths to his grandchild. Dr Raman said that there are two conditions – one, the child should have no clue about what is Maths; two, the child should learn some music. You can learn a lot of Maths through music. This would be the ideal approach – integrating art into the teaching of all subjects.

Every child should practice some art. It can be something of their choosing. There is no compulsion that the child should excel at it. She can also change from one art form to another as her interests change. Even merely witnessing art activities forms new connections between the neurons in the brain.  

Dr C. P. Unnikrishnan

VN: What is your take on the all or nothing approach that people have towards art? Many people feel that you should either wholly pursue art or you should not pursue it at all? Can’t there be a more tempered approach?

Dr Unnikrishnan: Everyone should practice some kind of art. As the Sri Lankan scholar Ananda Coomaraswamy said – The artist is not a special kind of person; rather each person is a special kind of artist.

Art is a person’s ability to wonder at life. If there is no sense of wonder what will anyone learn? Though a section of Indian philosophy encourages us to be detached from everything in order to attain salvation, I beg to disagree. Tagore has said (though I don’t remember the exact words) that no one becomes immortal due to complete detachment. Our sense organs have been given to us to enjoy the world. They are windows to gain knowledge. If we close them and detach ourselves, what knowledge will we gain?

VN: Many or should I say most people of your generation find it difficult to do even the most common tasks because of the increasing digitisation of the world. Hence they find themselves increasingly isolated. But you have kept yourself up to date. How is it so?

Dr Unnikrishnan: I’ve always been interested in gadgets. I don’t learn how to use or operate something for its own sake. It’s always connected to my necessities. So if I want to use animation software to make a presentation, I make an effort and learn it. This has been my method with all gadgets and that’s how I’ve kept up. Besides, I feel that if someone has a sincere desire to learn, then the difficulty level is nil. If you want to learn something you surely can.

VN: What are your current preoccupations apart from Kathakali?

Dr Unnikrishnan: I’m really interested in the neuroaesthetics. In simple terms it goes like this: when you see somebody doing something, what happens in their brains will happen in your brain also. Research based on this theory shows that the functional configuration of the brains of a performing artist, another artist watching the performance and a layperson watching the performance are surprisingly similar. So even watching someone engage in an artistic activity is beneficial to our brain. But my point of interest is that this same theory has been expounded by Bharatha in Natya Shastra.   

VN: It is interesting how you keep coming back to that text.

Dr Unnikrishnan: Yes, I do believe it is not something that is only meant for dancers. It is a complete package and is meant for everyone. As one continues to read it, one can discover new meanings.

VN: On that note, thank you very much for agreeing to talk to me and be featured on my blog.

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