I first met him as a newbie writer with her screenplay. A typical film-school-product I was probably too clear about the film in my head, but not entirely confident about the language and cultural ethos. I wanted his opinion on this aspect but what I got was so much more. Not for him were the needlessly intellectualized or the pretentious. His search was for simplicity and complexity in stories; finding myths that swim through these stories in time and space. He said, ''Myths are important because they remain relevant to any age. Exploring the myth in your story will reveal many layers. Let the audience have a chance to discover them.''
He reminded me of stories I had heard as a child, in my mother's voice and through classical dance and music. I had pushed them into the backroom of my sub-conscience in the rush to forge my identity as a filmmaker. He urged me to go back and connect with everything.
Our mediums were different â the stage and the frame, but the tools were not. I had the privilege to know him, to be guided by him and I had the special opportunity to witness his process as a director while we visually documented his theatre work. I remember my cameraman Tribhuvan Babu suddenly turning around before a shot to say, ''So much in you has changed since we started shooting with Kavalam Sir.'' Yes, it is true, and I shall always be thankful to Sir for it.
That was ten years ago.
I have had many experiences of his personal warmth since. I have had his guidance and creative inputs, but most importantly, he was inspiration in the most concentrated form. Even though I last saw Sir lying in state at the Sopanam kalari, my memory of him is one of heightened energy with a twinkle in his eye.
He treated his work like poetry. Each thing mattered â every word, every prop, every movement. The significance of each component and the meaning it adds up to; finding opportunity in every aspect of the stage to create the world; to communicate a thought. He introduced subtext in words, visual and sound, telling tales to our sub-conscience. There was a childlike exploration of a concept, a theme and its nuances. Misc-en-scene lessons at film school didn't hold a candle to how he went about his work in theatre. I was first surprised and then amazed by his attention to the minutest detail.
He never believed in a monolithic audience. He would say, ''If there are hundred audience members, there will be hundred receptive levels. Every one will never experience a performance at the same level. It varies...how does it vary? And on what basis it varies? It varies only on the basis of their own, individual cultural quality.'' He respected the audience as one who participates in the creative artiste's work. ''Na hi rasadrite kaschidarthah pravartate'' i.e. without evoking rasa (the emotional transformation of the audience), no meaningful idea is transmitted. His engagement with the Natyashastra and the Rasa theory were not limited to academics but were part of his practice for thirty-five years.
He had a gentle approach to nudge people and helped them grow in a certain direction. His family included his theatre group Sopanam where artistes have played every role, done every job and were ready to do his bidding. But never did I see him command them. It was always: ''angane cheythu nokaamo? / shall we try that?'' The tone was always respectful, collaborative and blameless. The egoless nature of the process was truly remarkable. With some pushy artistes, he let them make their own mistakes, but was ready to help them find a new solution.
He constantly explored new ideas, often throwing the question out into the open at his kalari â ''how shall we do this?'' He heard suggestions from everyone, and evaluated the suggestion in absolute value, not bothered about where it came from. His creativity was a journey of improvisation and interpretation and not some fixed destination. During performances I have seen him run from the backstage to the audience seats, back to the wings, to convey a last minute adjustment. This could happen even if this was a play that that his troupe had been staging for more than a decade.
He embraced Kerala by immersing the stories in her language, music, movements, colours, landscape and therefore her people. ''Isn't that how it should be for the land of every story?'' He made it sound so simple even when it wasn't. But that seemed to be his core principle â to keep one's roots alive and vibrant.
Our film Manjadikuru begins with a song that Sir wrote and sang â
Manne nambi elelo, verirukku ailasa,
(Trusting the soil, the roots live,)
vere nambi elelo, maramirukku ailasa,
(trusting the roots, the tree lives,)
marathe nambi elelo, ilayirukku ailasa,
(trusting the tree, the leaves live,)
ilaye nambi elelo, pazham irukku ailasa,
(trusting the leaves, the fruit lives,)
pazhathe nambi elelo, vithu irukku ailasa,
(trusting the fruit, the seed lives,)
vithe nambi elelo, mannu irukku ailasa.
(trusting the seed, the soil lives.)
The cyclical dynamics of both nature and families, couldn't have been expressed better.
He was never the one to stand across you to teach. He was the one to stand by you, even behind you and urged you to keep looking, keep seeking your own way.
I am not sure I have even a photograph with him. But does it matter? For he had more to teach me than any teacher I have had. His imprint of grace, learning and energy is not one that will fade.
My deepest gratitude and respect, Kavalam Sir.
Click here for the trailer of Anjali Menon's film on Kavalam Narayana Panikkar
*A London Film School alumnus, Menon is regarded among the premier contemporary talents in the Indian film industry. She has achieved significant success both critically and commercially with her feature films, Manjadikuru (Lucky Red Seeds), Ustad Hotel & Bangalore Days. She has been the recipient of National and State awards for her work in film and has also trained in Bharat Natyam, Mohini Attam & Carnatic music.