San Francisco — K.P. Kunhiraman, one of the world’s foremost artists of Indian Kathakali dance, died in his home city of Chennai, said a press release June 11. He was 83.
The San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival had planned to honor the legendary dancer with its annual Malonga Casquelourd Lifetime Achievement Award June 14, and Kunhiraman was planning to travel to San Francisco to receive the honor. So the news has cast a somber mood over the festival.
Kunhiraman first performed at the Festival 36 years ago, in the very first San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival program in May 1978. He and his wife, Katherine, were to have been honored June 14 by India’s consul general for San Francisco Nagesh Parthasarathi, and Kunhiraman had been practicing daily in preparation for the weekend’s festivities.
World Arts West is dedicating the Festival to him, and people are encouraged to bring notes and flowers to the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Theater this weekend to add to an altar in his memory. His widow will accept the honor on his behalf.
Julie Mushet, executive director of the San Francisco Ethnic Dance Festival, said in a statement June 11: “We are heartbroken to hear that K.P. Kunhiraman has just passed away.
“He was so excited for his travels to San Francisco to dance Kathakali and to receive his award with Katherine. He was the only male Kathakali dancer in America that we know of, and one of the highest regarded Kathakali masters in the whole world. With his passing, this transcendent cultural tradition is greatly diminished. Our condolences go out to his family and dear ones.”
Kunhiraman has distinguished himself during an arts career that spanned 67 years. Sruti Magazine explained that Kunhiraman hailed from Cheruvathoor, Kerala, and was the son of Kathakali legend K. Ambu Panikkar. Kunhiraman settled in the acclaimed arts colony of Kalakshetra in Chennai after his father died, and became well known as a guru and educator. He moved to Berkeley, Calif., in the 1960s and the Indian American artist worked to spread appreciation of Kathakali and Bharatnatyam in the U.S.
According to his wife, Kunhiraman came down with an infection that quickly worsenened to septicemia, and he died June 11 in a Chennai hospital. Per Hindu tradition, Kunhiraman’s body was cremated shortly after his death.
“Katherine flew to Chennai immediately upon word of the infection, and was at his side for his final hours and as he took his last breath,” said Mushet.