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':

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