“Kathakali is in my family,” says P.K.Devan with pride. The 88-year-old founder of the See India Foundation is no stranger in Kochi. He has been chosen for the Stallions International Cochin Chapter Lifetime Achievement Award for his contribution in promoting Kathakali by continuously organising performances for foreign tourists for the past 50 years.
“My father Guru Gopala Panicker was the first to start Kathakali in our family, long before Kalamandalam was founded. My brother Ananda Shivaram was the first Indian stage artist to step into Australia after he was discovered by Louise Lightfoot. He had presented the art all over the world,” says Devan, the youngest in the family. “I have learnt Kathakali, but I also completed my academic education. While in Mumbai, I took up journalism and back in the 60s, started ‘Purpose’, an Indian magazine with international appeal and ran it for about four years.”
Devan returned to Kochi in 1965 and founded the See India Foundation with his brother. “He started it first in the US and the Kochi wing was formed when I came here. The idea of introducing it here was in my mind when I had returned. Shivaram came here occasionally. Back then, it was called ‘A date with traditional Kerala’ and included many art forms including Kathakali. The programmes began with a 45-minute introduction about Kathakali in English. It was described not just as an art form but as an art, religion and philosophy.”
Over the years, Devan introduced Kathakali to the foreigners who came to India in search of both personal and material things. He remembers one tourist who had visited the centre in the 1990s. “Matthew Mclemore from the US visited India in search of inner peace. He wrote to me about watching a Kathakali performance here and how much the fight between the characters on stage reminded him of his own fight within and how it helped him fight the inner demons. I still have that letter.”
And it is such precious memories that keep Devan’s passion for Kathakali stronger.