Saturday, September 24, 2011

Kathakali @ Kalakshetra

Dusk is descending on the Kalakshetra in Chennai. Beautiful kolams (traditional patterns drawn on the floor) lead one to the venue where the stage is set for a dance-drama performance. Fragrance of sambrani wafts in the area as coils of white smoke emanate from various places, dense at the bottom and disintegrating in the air as they rise up. Bunches of fresh neem leaves are being used to keep the insects away. An attractive arrangement of flowers floating in a large clay bowl welcomes everyone at the entrance. It is a lovely semi-open theatre set amidst lush green tress.

Photo by Rakesh S (CC-BY-SA-2.0)
I am here to watch 'Uttara Swayamvaram', a Kathakali performance, my first ever. The painted face of a Kathakali performer is very familiar as it is one of the most common icons of Kerala. One often notices it in advertisements, calendars and on the covers of magazines. But I have never seen a Kathakali dancer in flesh and blood. So I am all eyes and ears, waiting for the curtains to part. The huge kalivilakku (lamp) placed on the front part of the stage is lit. It is a signal that the recital is about to begin. As the curtains slide open, four formidable middle-aged gentlemen appear on the stage. They are dressed in off-white mundus with the mandatory gold border. They are all bare-chested. Two of them take their place on one side in the front while two stand at the back. The ones standing on the side are drummers, playing the chenda and the maddalam. The horizontal drum is tied to the waist of the drummer while the vertical drum is supported by a sling around the player's shoulder. The duo at the back are singers, doubling up as accompanists with chengila (a gong made of bell metal, which is struck with a wooden stick) and ilathaalam (a pair of cymbals). Don't be overwhelmed by these is just that I had done my homework before going!

As the musicians get going, two men bring a rectangular, decorated piece of cloth, just like a large bedspread, and stand holding it as if it were a curtain, shielding a good part of the stage with it. We do not come to know when the dancer arrives on the stage, for our view is blocked by the makeshift curtain. A little later, I notice a shiny headpiece bobbing behind it. Then two hands appear on top of the curtain. Only the left hand is wearing five rings, one on each finger, with bright, long nail-shaped extensions. After a display of some exquisite mudras (hand gestures) by the unseen performer, the curtain is finally pulled down and taken away. The hero of today's show, Duryodhana is standing magnificently, with all his bells and whistles. The first viewing is somewhat intimidating, for his is a larger-than-life figure. The spectacular headpiece, the green face, symmetrical designs drawn in contrast colours around the eyebrows and the lips in order to highlight them, the heavy decorations around the neck, the long black hair, the red full-sleeved jacket and the red and white skirt held around the hips like a huge umbrella. I am in awe of this costume. One would need a lot of practice just to carry all this stuff on oneself! Interestingly, while the ornamentation is very heavy at the top, the feet are completely bereft of any colour or jewellery. Even the ghungroos are tied around the knees, not ankles.

Photo by Rakesh S (CC-BY-SA-2.0
The first scene is a slow, romantic act between Duryodhana and his wife, Bhanumathi. They are in a beautiful garden, appreciating nature's bounty. This scene is replete with facial expressions and hand gestures. The whole face is being used like a canvas to express a variety of emotions. Duryodhana's control over the movement of his eyes and eyebrows is simply superb. At one point, he even synchronises moving his eyebrows with the beats of the drum. Bhanumathi, being played by a man is comparatively less ornate in her costume and accessories.

The next scene shows the court of Duryodhana, where he is discussing with others the possibility of the Pandavas, who are supposed to be in exile, taking shelter in the neighbouring kingdom of King Virata. This scene has a lot of movement and action when a messenger relates various happenings, which strengthen their suspicion about the presence of the Pandavas in the nearby kingdom.

In the third scene, Duryodhana summons the king of Trigartha, Susharma; and asks for his help in the plan to identify the Pandavas and scare them away to the forest. Susharma is ferocious and scary with his red hair and red beard. The actors bring alive scenes of battle on the stage, complete with imaginary chariots, horses and elephants. In the end, Susharma is of course defeated by Bhima, who is working in the royal kitchen as a cook during his exile. The battle scenes depicting veer rasa are ably supported by the musicians, with the music reaching a crescendo several times during the performance. Not just the actor, but the musicians are so involved in the scene that they are greatly charged up.

The high-energy performance has been going on non-stop for three hours. The spirited musicians have been standing all along, captivating the audience with their invigorating music. The singers have been busy too, as the entire storytelling happens through the verses that they sing. The actors/dancers do not say a word. Only the actor playing Duryodhana unleashes some cries from time to time. The verses are pieces of poetry written in Manipravalam, which is a mixture of Malayalam and Sanskrit, used in ancient literary works. I can catch the Sanskrit words, but the Malayalam component escapes me. It is a pity not to be able to appreciate the original compositions, but thanks to the excellent text on the slides being projected on one of the walls of the stage, I follow the details of the story as it unfolds. And enjoy it thoroughly! The all-natural ambience at the Kalakshetra and the appreciative audience add to the experience.

Later, all the artistes are requested to come back to the stage for the presentations. It is amusing to see that the all-powerful Duryodhana, who dominated the dance-drama for the last three hours, is a diminutive man clad in a simple shirt and mundu, completely shorn of his embellishments. I remember having read somewhere that in Kathakali, it is important for an actor to let his personality be completely overshadowed by that of the character he is playing. Sitting in this pretty little theatre, and looking at the small figure of Injakkad Ramachandran Pillai on the stage in front of me, I think it is so true!

A glimpse from an earlier rendition of 'Uttara Swayamvaram':

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Pondicherry: An Ideal Getaway From Chennai

If you are thinking of a nice weekend getaway from Chennai, Pondicherry (now called Puducherry, but I am sticking to Pondicherry because more people know it that way) is almost sure to top the list of the options available. It is 160 kilometres from Chennai and it takes about three hours to get there. Most of the route passes along the scenic coast. No wonder that the highway is simply called the East Coast Road, abbreviated to ECR in Chennai. One can take a bus or a taxi from Chennai. You may want to stop at Mahabalipuram (Mamallapuram) on the way. This is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, about 60 kilometres from Chennai. There are beautiful temples carved in stone, situated along the beach in this small town. The monuments are believed to have been built between the 7th century and the 9th century. But they have been standing so close to the sea for so long that the exquisite carvings have lost all their sharpness. Most of them are just some irregular shapes with rounded edges. The finer details of the works are lost, but the temples, chariots, pillars and sculpted reliefs have stood the test of the time and look impressive even today. That is the reason why Mahabalipuram is a popular destination for tourists.

There are several beach resorts on the way to Pondicherry. It is an interesting town...Pondicherry. Most of it looks like a typical coastal town in Tamil Nadu, while a small part makes you feel as if you were somewhere in France. Pondicherry came into being in 1673 under the French rule. It was the capital of French India until as late as 1954. The French Quarter is a charming little place, blessed with the lovely backdrop of the Bay of Bengal. Many of the streets retain their French names, while some buildings remind you of French villas.

Over the years, Pondicherry has become synonymous with Sri Aurobindo Ashram. The ashram was founded by Sri Aurobindo, a prominent freedom fighter, philosopher and poet, on the 24th November,1926. Soon after that, he withdrew from public life, handing over the running of the ashram to his French co-worker, Mirra Alfassa, better known as the Mother. The ashram attracts lots of visitors from India and abroad. Bureau Central, located on Rangapillai Street acts as the information centre for the ashram and helps visitors in all possible ways, including arranging accommodation in one of the ashram guest houses. I have made only day trips to Pondicherry and so I did not get a chance to stay in any of the guest houses. But I have heard that they are very good.

It is best to explore the French Quarter and the area around the ashram on foot. I walked to the ashram and joined the queue of people waiting for their turn to enter the ashram premises through a small door. I had expected the main ashram building to be quite large, but it is surprisingly small, a rather unassuming structure which you enter directly from the footpath outside. Later I came to realize that the ashram is spread out over the French Quarter in the form of numerous small units, all painted in the characteristic white and grey. There are guest houses, dining halls, book shops, educational institutes and cottage industries. These industries are engaged in activities like batik painting, embroidery, handmade paper, incense sticks, herbal soaps, candles, oils, perfumes and book publishing. You have to see the variety of incense sticks sold under the brand name 'Auroshikha' to believe their extensive range. Their packing is very attractive and their scent divine. SABDA (Sri Aurobindo Book Distribution Agency) is a well-maintained bookshop selling literature based on Sri Aurobindo's and the Mother's philosophy.

The main ashram building that houses the samadhi (tomb or cenotaph) of Sri Aurobindo and the Mother, is open for visitors for four hours in the morning and four hours in the afternoon/evening, with a two-hour break in between. As you enter the premises, you are led through a flower-filled little garden path towards the inner courtyard where the samadhi occupies the centre stage. The samadhi is a simple marble structure under the canopy of the branches of a large tree. But what is striking is the elaborate decoration on it done with fresh flowers. It is completely covered with an arrangement of colourful blossoms, making the area redolent with their mixed fragrance. People come silently, kneel down to touch the samadhi with their forehead, then move away to sit in the courtyard that extends on all four sides of the samadhi. Everybody sits quietly, in meditation or prayer. No cell phones, no music, no talking, no clicking of cameras as photography is not permitted...only occasional chirping of birds. For most, this is the high point of their visit to Pondicherry. Spending some quiet moments near the samadhi is an enriching experience.

My favourite place to visit after the main ashram building is the Goubert Avenue which runs parallel to the beach. It is within walking distance from the ashram. The seat of the local government, the secretariat is located along this avenue. Some lovely guest houses and hotels occupy other places of pride along this beautiful promenade. The beach here is lined with rocks, not sand. A prominent landmark in this area is the tall black statue of Mahatma Gandhi standing under a white dome supported by pillars. Walking along this not-so-crowded avenue with balmy breeze blowing from the majestic Bay of Bengal is very enjoyable.

Another place of interest very close to the ashram is the Manakula Vinayagar Temple. It has been around even before the French came and settled in Pondicherry somewhere around 1670. It is a Ganesha temple and there is always an elephant at the entrance to bless people. Outside, there are little shops selling knick-knacks. I loved browsing in them before buying some pretty incense stick holders carved from light green stone. The lanes around the ashram are lined with small bookshops, boutiques and little eateries. It is fun walking around there.

About eight kilometres from Pondicherry is the experimental township called Auroville. It was founded by the Mother in 1968 with an idea of international brotherhood and harmonious community living. At the heart of this sprawling township is Matrimandir, a golden metallic sphere. Entry into this magnificent dome is restricted as it is reserved for those who wish to practise meditation seriously.

One can spend a few days in Pondicherry or one can just make a day-long trip from Chennai, as I did. Either way, it is a trip that soothes you, and refreshes you before you get back to your busy life in the city.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Delhi In September : Stuffy, Sultry And Sticky

September is thankfully the last of the trio of the most unbearable months in the nation's capital. It is hard to classify this month under any particular season, for it is nothing but a continuation of the seemingly unending spell of heat coupled with humidity. Residents of Delhi who survive three long months of dry summer followed by another three months of muggy summer wait eagerly for September to end, hoping to see some light at the end of the dark tunnel. It does rain at times, but not so much as it did in August. The cloud cover disappears and most of the times, the sun shines brightly, sometimes fiercely over weary Delhiites. The inhospitable weather comes as a rude shock to people visiting Delhi. The city is swelteringly stuffy with its trees looking lifeless and forlorn, for there is no breeze to rustle through their leaves and make them sway with happiness.

Photo by Prateek
The Mother's International School on Aurobindo Marg is an oasis of tranquillity amidst the rapidly growing urban stretches around it. Situated inside the serene Aurobindo Ashram premises, it is one of the most sought-after schools in Delhi. It is Teachers' Day and the 12th graders are decked up in colourful clothes. Girls in sarees and boys in ethnic Indian ensemble or other formals. It is their final year in school and they are playing the role of their teachers today, letting the real teachers go for an outing or a picnic. It is fun time for everybody as these young teachers 'teach' in classrooms mimicking their teachers, assume an air of authority occupying the hallowed offices of the principal and vice-principal, and enjoy an easy access to the staff rooms and other normally out-of-reach areas in the school. Surely a nice way to spend a day dedicated to teachers, marking the birthday of Dr. Sarvepalli Radhakrishnan, our second President and a great teacher himself. Similar activities are taking place in schools across the city and the whole country. Students are showing their appreciation for their teachers by gifting flowers and cards to them.

While it is fun and games in the idyllic world of school kids, it is not the same in the real world outside. Businesses like jewellery, catering and real estate suffer a temporary slump as people are averse to making an important purchase or having an auspicious occasion like a wedding or an engagement during 'pitrupaksha'. It is a fortnight-long period of paying respect to one's ancestors. Some people observe specific rituals, others engage in charitable activities, while the rest don't really do anything. But a large number of people desist from making a big monetary transaction or having a celebration in the family, waiting patiently for this span, more commonly called 'shradh' in Delhi to pass.

The shradh fortnight ends and then begins a very auspicious interval of nine days and nine nights called 'navaratri'. The life of Lord Rama is enacted in 'Ramlilas' through the nine nights leading to Dussehra. Most of the action takes place in Old Delhi. Ramlila Maidan is of course well known, though maybe people know it now more as the venue of Anna Hazare's fast than as the ground where Ramlilas have been happening for years. All the grounds where a Ramlila takes place, are generally abuzz with activity much before the show starts. There is a carnival-like atmosphere with food stalls, toy stalls and fun rides for children. Ramlila is a kind of folk theatre, but it is keeping up with the changing times. Lav Kush Ramlila in Delhi has a countdown counter ticking on its website and promises online live webcast of the event as the drama unfolds.

Navaratri is also the time for worshipping the Goddess in her myriad forms. Devotees throng Her temples all over Delhi. Prominent among them are the Kalkaji Mandir in Okhla Industrial Area and the Aadya Katyayani Shaktipeeth popularly known as Chhatarpur Mandir on Gurgaon-Mehrauli Road. People wait patiently in long serpentine queues to get a darshan of the heavily decorated and bejewelled idol of the Goddess. My favourite temple is the little Kamakshi Temple situated on Aruna Asaf Ali Marg, bang opposite the Jawaharlal Nehru University gate. It belongs to the Kanchi Kamakoti Trust and is frequented mostly by the capital's Tamil population. It is lovely, has open areas on all the four sides and sports beautiful floral decoration around the idol. You may even chance upon some delicious lemon rice or spicy sundal if you happen to visit the temple when families take turns to distribute these goodies there.

Chittaranjan Park, Delhi's Bengali enclave is getting ready for the most awaited period of the year. The end of pitrupaksha brings Mahalaya, starting the countdown to the four most important days beginning with saptami. It is time to welcome, adore and worship Durga. It is the puja time...a time for new clothes, good food and holiday with family and friends.

Elsewhere in the country, Ganapati festival and Garba/Dandiya dances are on. But in Delhi, these celebrations are restricted to pockets where there is a concentration of Maharashtrian and Gujarati communities, not leaving their mark on the overall social/religious calendar of the city. People from all the Indian states live in Delhi and you meet a nice sprinkling of them at your school or work, but the geographical location of the city does lend it a distinct North Indian flavour, making saadi Dilli a vibrant, fun-loving metropolis.