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Keeping the tradition alive

Deccan Chronicle 2019-06-12 23:47:00

Ottan Thullal exponent Suresh Varma’s first recital was not a story by Kunjan Nambiar, but currentpolitical happenings, showing the relevance of the art form in this era. A native of Ambalappuzha in Alappuzha district, Suresh has been performing the art form for the past 27 years. He began learning it right from his school days. One of his teachers took the initiative to teach him Thullal. After a year, Varma joined the Kunjan Nambiar Memorial in Ambalappuzha where he was trained under the tutelage of noted Ottan Thullal artiste Guru Vayalar Krishnankutty.

“Dr Ambalappuzha Gopakumar sir helped me practise under Guru,” says Suresh. Since then, he has been learning the traditional art form professionally, and soon started performing at different venues independently.


The fact that he was born in an artiste family made it easier for him to follow his passion. When he started performing independently, his father, a mridangam artiste, accompanied him to the recitals. “The performances are mostly in temples and at functions related to religious events,” he says.

Even though Thullal is an art form originated in  Kerala, it has a huge audience outside the state as well. Before every performance, Suresh explains to the audience the story he is about to perform which makes it easier for them to understand what they witness. According to the Thullal exponent, language is not a barrier to enjoy the art form.

“People understand the art through the artistes’ facial expressions and they respond actively,” he says, adding that Kalyana Sougandhikam is the most sought-after act and one of his favourites.

Everybody knows the story of how Kunjan Nambiar, a poet and a mizhavu (a musical instrument) player fell asleep during a Chakyar Koothu performance, following which the lead performer rebuked him in public. An angry Nambiar soon developed Ottan Thullal to give back to the Chakyar, but the act became so popular.

Suresh is training 29 students now. He says it takes four to five years for a student to condition himself/herself to perform Thullal as he/she has to understand the purpose and purity of the art and the culture related to it. In the case of Ottan Thullal, the artiste has the freedom to recreate the stories that are commonly performed. “However, Kunjan Nambiar curated each story with utmost perfection that people fail to write beyond that. According to a study, there are 64 stories written by Kunjan Nambiar,” Suresh says.

Suresh further adds that the historical ban on Thullal was a major setback that the art form encountered. “It was after a gap of 250 years that Thullal artistes started performing again,” he says, adding  that he is on a life-long mission to spread the tradition and the uniqueness of the art form. He firmly believes he will succeed in it.