Kavalam Narayana Panikkar (1928-2016): A Tribute

Rajesh P[1]
[Received on July 4, 2016, published on July 13]

Vol. 1, No. 2, 2016 I Full Text PDF

K. N. Panikkar by Mullookkaaran (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Kavalam, a small village alongside the backwaters of Kerala is today known after a thespian par excellence. Kavalam Narayana Panikkar who carried along with him not just the name of his village, but the rhythm of folk, while in search of the ‘roots’ of Indian art forms. With a profound knowledge of the folk arts of Kerala such as Theyyam, Padayani, Koodiyattam and Kakkarishi Natakam1, he became advocate of the “Theatre of Roots” along with Habib Tanvir, Vijay Tendulkar, Ratan Tiyam and Girish Karnad. His contributions to the revival of Tanathu (indigenous) art forms remain unsurpassed.

K. N. Panikkar, popularly known as Kavalam was born into an affluent family with rich cultural heritage of Kuttanad; he worked relentlessly for the revival of native theatre by incorporating classical, folk and western theaters, though not without criticism. Even as a theatre doyen, he was involved in kalari2 till his last days, meditating over his latest drama Rithambara.3 He remained a multitalented artist and made significant contributions as a playwright, director, lyricist and singer.

K.N. Panikkar would have remained a lawyer had his disposition not inclined to the culture abundance around him. His six years practice after obtaining a law degree was replaced by an artistic career spanning over half a century, transcending the discipline with an extensive repertoire of folk art. When in late 1950’s he wrote, directed and acted in his first play Panchayat, he was not completely into theatre. It was during his ten year service as the secretary of the Kerala Sangeeta Nataka Akademi (1961-1971) that he developed a broad view on dramaturgy. His association with legendary artists and scholars like Chembai Vaidyanatha Bhagavathar, Mani Madhava Chakyar, Attoor Krishna Pisharody, M.D. Ramanathan and Njaralath Rama Poduval while documenting their art and life for the archives, gave him concrete idea regarding performing art forms. His exposure to Sanskrit language helped him to direct Bhasa’s plays like Madhyama Vyayogam (1978), Urubhangam (1983), and Karnabharam (1984) and Kalidasa Vikramorvasiyam (1981) and Shakuntalam (1982), which brought out his talent and earned him wide acclaim. He became the founder Director of ‘Sopanam’, the theatre wing of Bhasabharati. His extensive research about various art forms in Kerala helped him to develop a new wave of thought, which could democratize ‘poetic drama’ devoid of proscenium and curtain.

While post-independence drama was in search of the ‘long lost identity’, Panikkar was stepping into Kerala theatre field, where playwrights like C.N. Sreekandan Nair, C.J. Thomas, N.N. Pillai, M. Govindan and G. Sankara Pillai were the towering figures. Though Ibsenian realism worked in the background of professional theatre,  new experiments brought by Jatra in Bengal, Tamasha in Maharashtra and Yakshagana in Karnataka fascinated a group of dramatists in Kerala, they thought of reviving native drama under the title called Tanathu Natakavedhi4 (indigenous theatre). Their efforts to reclaim Indian theatre were based on the strategies adopted by the proponents of “Theatre of Roots” like Sombhu Mitra, Utpal Dutt, Habib Tanvir, Shanta Gandhi, Satyadev Dubey, Ratan Tiyam, Badal Sircar, and Girish Karnad. Though M. Govindan and C.N. Sreekandan Nair took the baton in Kerala, it was K.N. Panikkar’s works that became the backbone of the movement, the latter among the pioneers considered him as artistic heir. When C.N.’s play kali (1968) failed to catch the audience’s mind, Panikkar’s drama groups; ‘Koothambalam’, ‘Sopanam’ and ‘Thiruvarangu’ successfully performed dramas. His plays like Sakshi (1964), which inaugurated poetic drama, Thiruvazithaar (1976) and Avanavan Kadamba (1978) were initially rated low by dramatists; some of them lambasted him over the experimental techniques. Even when people conformed to the traditional theatre calling his dramas as low quality burlesque, he never lost his mind. At a time when the proponents of ‘Theatre of roots’ demanded the ‘decolonization of creative forms and cultural modes’5, Panikkar successfully challenged western dramatic culture by reclaiming the indigenous theatre.  He did not give much weight to the immediate past; rather he looked back to the heydays of great dramatists like Bhasa and Kalidasa…Full Text PDF

[1] Rajesh P is a final year M. A. student at the Department of English, University of Hyderabad. ORCID ID: Email: