Pannisseri Nanu Pillai

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Pannisseri Nanu Pillai (11 September 1885 – 20 August 1942) was a poet, scholar, ascetic, critic and artist from Kerala, India, who specialised in the classical India genre of dance-drama known as Kathakali.

He was born in South Maruthoorkulangara village in Karunagappalli taluk, Kollam District, Kerala. His father was Vayalil Pappu Kurup and mother Planullil Kalyani Amma. His father died when Pillai was aged eight and his mother when he was eleven, after which he was raised by his brother and his uncle. He was educated in the village primary school and then Kollam High School, until his brother also died. Outside school, he was taught Sanskrit by Karingattil Nanu Asan and he also taught himself logic, grammar, poetics and drama. He eventually became a polyglot, with proficiency in languages such as Malayalam, Sanskrit, English, Tamil, Hindi, Telugu, Kannada, Bengali, and Arabic.

In 1913 Pillai became a disciple of Neelakanda Teerthapada Swami and later he followed Chattampi Swami and was close to Narayana Guru. Pillai could attain ‘Jnana Nishta’ by virtue of his acquiring enlightenment of salvation. He secured the title ‘Vidyapanan’ after his treatise The Objectivity of the Spirit.

Pillai composed four Kathakali attakathas - Nizhalkuttu, Bhadrakalivijayam, Padukapattabhishekam and Sankaravijayam - and succeeded in radically changing and popularising the art form. Nizhalkuthu was enacted in temples and was a daring experiment, with two unheroic rustic characters, the ‘Malayan' and ‘Malayathi’, when convention dictated the use only of mythical characters of heroic dimensions.

Pillai's Bhadrakali Vijayam was influenced by Thottampattu - an ancient lyrical story told in folk song in Bhadrakali temples - and the Tamil epic Silappatikaram. Beyond the scripts for stage performance, he had also mastered stagecraft and had given training in stage performance for aspirants.

Pillai and his friend Vardhanam Krishna Pillai wrote the first Malayalam biography of Neelakanda Theertha Pada Swami, The Complex History of Sree Neelakanda Theertha Pada Swami. He also wrote

  • Markendeyam Prakaranam
  • Sooryasatakam (translation)
  • Chitrodayamani Bhashakavyam (translation)
  • Vimarsana Sanchika
  • Kathakali Prakaram, a seminal theoretical text for Kathakali.

Besides these there were many books on spiritual topics. He translated Chattampi Swamikal's Adibhasha from Tamil to Malayalam. His Sankara Vijayam (1941) records significant events in the life of Sankaracharya, the founder of Advaita philosophy. As a social reformer, Pillai had close ties with Islam and Xian theologists.

The mosque was established at Maruthoorkulangara by the initiative of Pillai. He founded a village school, the temple renovation, founding of the Sanskrit School at Puthiyakavu are a few to mention among his social services. The fight for temple entry of the low castes and that against the partisan movement of Punnasseri Neelakanta Sharma are testimonial of his progressive turn of mind.

He died on August 20, 1942. Mankompu Sivasankara Pillai is his disciple. A documentary of his life has been broadcast by Kairali TV.

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For more information about his attakatha 'Nizhalkuthu' see: