The stunning depression that followed some years after the first world war further ruined the classical arts of Kerala. It was only the strength of character and determination of a few dedicated veterans and an occasional shot in the arm by an isolated patron that kept the flame alive. Kathakali or other classical arts could not attract talented youth in numbers as they offered no source of decent livelyhood. No wonder the artists who performed before the poet at Kunnamkulam shocked him. It was that shock however, that saved Kathakali.
Once the idea got into him, the Mahakavi did not waste any time. He called together all his friends and got a new society registered at Calicut in 1927. He christened it the "Kerala Kalamandalam". To raise funds for an institution that did not offer a monetary return was not an easy matter. The Mahakavi therefore ventured on a new way of getting money. He got the government approval to start a raffle. It took him and his friends three years to collect a reasonable sum before they could hold the draw at the famous Guruvayoor temple in 1930. The net proceeds of the raffle amounting to Rs. 75,000/ became the capital of Kalamandalam.
The real functioning of the Kalamandalam began in 1930 at the Kakkat Madhom premises at Kunnamkulam. The Mahakavi felt that the institution needed more space and facilities. Manakkulam Mukunda Raja, friend and colleague of the Mahakavi in this venture came forward and offered his premises at Ambalapuram, a few kilometers off Trichur to house the Kalamandalam. When the Kalamandalam was shifted there, the Mahakavi also came and stayed at Ambalapuram so that he could devote his personal attention to the students and teachers. He believed that artists should have a reasonable education and awareness of our classical literature and epics. So he persuaded Kutti Krisha Marar, a rare renowned scholar of Kerala to join the institution to teach the students.
By 1936 a reasonably spacious compound was secured on the banks of the Bharathapuzha at Cheruthuruthy and a building put up at considerable expense. The institution was shifted to the new site and started functioning there from 1937. Kalamandalam had established name of its own by then. Students came from different parts of the world to take advantage of the systematic training available there under the direct supervision of the Mahakavi. They included famous danseuse Ragini Devi and the great choreographer and dancer of international renown, Guru Gopinath. The Mahakavi insisted that the teachers of the institution be the very best available. Thus he secured the services of great masters like Guru Kunju Kurup, Pattikkanthodi Ravunni Menon and Kavalappara Narayan Nayar to teach the actor students, Venkatakrishna Bhagavathar to teach music, Moothamana Namboothiripad to teach Chenta and Venkachan Pattar to teach the Maddalam.
The very first batch of students was indeed a remarkable one. They included Ananda Sivaram who later went abroad and established himself as a dancer of international repute. Two others, Madhavan and Kelu Nair also left traditional Kathakali to gain glory as dancers. The only actor who stayed behind in the traditional scenes was Krishan Nayar. He has, from the days of his graduation, stayed at the top and has been truly christened Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair.
The Mahakavi conceived of the Kalamandalam as the temple of all classical art forms of Kerala. Mohiniyattam, the Kerala counterpart of Bharatanatyam had fallen into decay at the close of the last century. The Mahakavi decided to revive this exquisite dance. After scanning the entire state, he was able to locate one Smt. Kalyani Amma who could teach Mohiniyattam. The first batch of students who received training at her hands blossomed into great names in the field, Smt. Thankamani, wife of Guru Gopinath and Smt. Kalyanikutti Amma, wife of Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair. Later, Kalyani Amma was sent to Shanti Niketan by the Mahakavi at the request of Tagore.
Along with Kathakali and Mohiniyattam, training in other art forms like Bharatanatyam and Thullal were also taken by Kalamandalam. Later, Kuttiyattam was added to the curriculam.
Today Kalamandalam attracts students from all over the world. Its products have been touring the world presenting Kathakali at various international festivals.
The Mahakavi's dream was to ressurect Kathakali and present it to the world in such a manner that its glory was fully recognised, appreciated and admired. That he achieved it even in his own lifetime is history. Today, no cultural programme in Kerala is complete without a performance of Kathakali. World festivals of art and theatre consider it a proud privilege to include Kathakali in their programmes.
From the time the Kalamandalam was formed, the Mahakavi devoted all his time for the development of the institution barring the few hours he managed to save which he spent to please his first love, the muse. As the institution grew in strength and reputation, its funds began to dwindle. The Mahakavi made valiant efforts through various tours both in India and abroad to raise the funds. But the money that came in was far too little to sustain the institution. In 1942 it came very near to closure. It was at that time that the benign Maharaja of Cochin intervened and took over the management of the Kalamandalam through a royal proclamation. Since then the Kalamandalam has been sustained by the annual grant of the State Government.
Kalamandalam is conceived as an institution that adheres to traditional Gurukulam style of teaching. It is thus a residential institution, the only exception being that a few day students attend Bharatanatyam and Mohiniyattam classes. The traditional syllabus followed by the Kalamandalam requires that the students start work in the early hours of the morning. Broadly the features of the trainig programme can be classified into:
These are all done to exacting standards as an actor is expected to express any one of the Navarasas (the nine distinctive facets of aesthetic expression) at will. Physical culture is indeed strenuous. The muscles and bones must be quite supple. This state can be achieved only by oil massage of a very rigorous nature performed during the cold months of the monsoon over a fortnight to a month. For a Kathakali artist the annual massage is a must, without which his body will become stiff.
From the connoisseur's point of view, the more enjoyable portion in a Kathakali performance is Illakiyattam. Illakiyattam is different from Cholliyattam. In Kathakali the Thirassila or curtain does not fall when the prescribed dialogue between the characters on the stage is over. They continue to converse through the language of Kathakali, a language with no spoken word. Sometimes it may be a character like Bhimasena describing a whole forest before him or Arjuna describing the beauties of heaven. All this comes out of the imagination of the artist. It is therefore essential to develop the mental horizon of the artist so that he could weave delectable scenes or experience out of his imagination to delight the audience. This calls for a continuous effort in educating the artist not only in acquiring excellence in the physical aspects of a performance but also in his absorbing a vast canvass of rich knowledge of our traditional literature. The Mahakavi was particular that the artists trained in the Kalamandalam should have a sound knowledge of tradition and Indian lore. He set the standart for ensuring this by including a certain number of hours of teaching of this aspect in the regular curriculam.
A student takes six whole years to pass through the Kalamandalam course for recieving a diploma in acting or music. It takes four years to acquire the diploma in playing the maddalam or chenta. A two year post graduate course is also available for specially talented artists.
When the Mahakavi breathed his last in 1958, his agonies were over. So far as the ressurection of Kathakali was concerned, he had his ecstasy when he celebrated the Silver Jubilee of the Institution in 1956 in the presence of Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru who had acclaimed once he witnessed Kathakali that it was the last word on art.