K.P. Kunhiraman, veteran Kathakali artist and teacher, and probably the only famous male Kathakali artist in America, died of a blood infection in Chennai, on 12 June at the age 83. The news comes as a shock because Kunhiraman and wife Katherine were scheduled to receive the Malonga Casquelourd Lifetime Achievement Award at the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival on 14 June. It was to be quite a night for Kunhiraman, who performed at the first Ethnic Dance Festival 36 years ago and was making this year’s event his final U.S. appearance.
Kunhiraman hailed from Cheruvathoor in the Kasaragod district of Kerala, and was the son of Kathakali legend K. Ambu Panikkar. After his father’s demise, Kunhiraman came to Kalakshetra on Rukmini Devi’s invitation to study and teach. He stayed at Kalakshetra for the next thirty years becoming one of its most celebrated and revered dancers, with unforgettable performances in the Ramayana series and other dance drama programmes. He also helped his guru train some of the greatest names among male dancers to perform at Kalakshetra and elsewhere in the decades to come.
In the 1970s Katherine and Kunhiraman moved to Berkeley, California, where for over four decades they played a significant role in disseminating south Indian arts traditions, especially Kathakali and Bharatanatyam, in the U.S.A.
Due to advancing age and related reasons, Kunhiraman returned to Chennai this past year. Katherine, who was in the US, taking care of their dance institution called Kalanjali, flew to Chennai immediately upon word of Kunhiraman’s illness, and was at her husband’s side for his final hours as he took his last breath.
Kunhiraman was perhaps the greatest exponent of the art form in a long line of distinguished performers that Kalakshetra spawned.
(For detailed story on the Kunhiramans, see Sruti issues 316 and 201.)