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A taste of Kathakali

December 11, 2020

This critic clearly recalls how he was enthralled, years ago, to witness, on a ritual occasion, the nightlong Kathakali performance in the sanctum sanctorum of Padmanabaswamy Temple under the twinkling lamps' glow in the early hours of dawn and sat transfixed with its magic -- connecting THERE and THEN to the HERE and NOW... Yet, while performed on today's proscenium stage under the glaring arc lights, spectators often miss the romance of this dance-theatre, one major reason being the unfamiliar attire worn by the dramatis personae. In this context, one also fondly recalls many demonstrations of Kathakali that the maestro Sadanam Balakrishnan gave, clad in the most simple attire, in the national capital and won over his audience.

When Prabal Gupta, the talented young dancer hailing from Kolkata, arrived in Kerala to become the disciple of the master artist Sadanam Balakrishnan, he encountered stiff resistance from the local community against being absorbed in the Kathakali dancers' fraternity. By sheer grit and struggle, Prabal achieved acceptance and became a Kathakali dancer of some eminence. Especially his streevesham dance of the Kathakali genre received national acclaim.

Uttaraswayamvaram (Uttara's Wedding) is a Kathakali play, usually known as Aattakatha, penned by Irayimman Thampi in Malayalam a few centuries back. Based on the Mahabharata, it narrates an episode from the thirteenth year of exile of the Pandava princes, during which they stay in disguise at the palace of the King of Virata. The story narrates the attempt by Thrigartha, a vassal of the Kauravas, to abduct cows from Virata's kingdom. The Pandavas step in to foil the efforts of the Kauravas, and in the process, their true identity is revealed. The play culminates in the marriage of the Princess Uttara of Virata to Abhimanyu, son of Arjuna. When King Virata's messenger arrives at the Kaurava court with the former's invitation, King Duryodhana (desperate to trace the hiding Pandavas and, thereby send them back for a second exile of twelve years) asks the messenger to visit his subjects probably to find out the whereabouts of the Pandavas.

Photo: Deepak

In a “virtual” program scheduled on November 22, Prabal -- using plain, homely clothes -acted out one Charanam from the last scene as above with aplomb and won everybody's heart. Set to raga Kamboji in chempada talam, he used Kalasams, similar to teermanams in Bharatanatyam, to illustrate the messenger's dialogue with the king and express his response and anxieties to King Duryodhana's commands. In around a 12-minute solo, Prabal established his command over the intricacies of the classical form and proved to be a worthy disciple of the master.

The performance was preceded - again in very simple attire -- by a well-articulated lecture by Prabal on the genesis and growth of Kathakali beginning with the history of political turmoil in the picturesque land of Kerala; the birth of the martial art of Kalaripayattu; the evolution of four social classes based on division of labour; propagation of Sanskrit and birth of Kudiyattam; the rise of Manipravalam (literally, the Jewel and the Coral) as a blending of Sanskrit and Malayalam for use as a spoken language; use of percussion instruments; evolution of other prevailing dance forms like Theyyam, Krishnanattam and eventually Ramanattam; and how eventually Krishnanattam mutated into Kathakali. Prabal followed this up with a demonstration of the basic exercises of Kathakali, the nritta aspects, the circularity of most of the movements, Kalasams, the movements of eyebrows, the cheek and other pratyanga; and the 24 hasta mudras from the fundamental text of Hasta Lakshana Deepika.

Prabal then demonstrated a few hasta mudras: creating lotus, bees capturing honey, elephants swaggering, the king dispensing charities, a horse galloping, and a snake taking its vicious aim on the victim. He then moved on to a full-scale demonstration of Nava Rasa ranging from shringara to the ninth relatively later addition of shanta. He ended his lec-dem by describing the musicality of Kerala' s own contribution to Padam, in the form of Sopanam music, sung in a staccato style especially in Guruvayur temple in a slow tempo usually, except in tandava segments.

The event was organised by Orissa Dance Academy in collaboration with University of North Carolina, Charlotte. It was quite a satisfying program, with attention to details and in a user friendly style. Warmly recommended.

Dr. Utpal K Banerjee is a scholar-commentator on performing arts over last four decades. He has authored 23 books on Indian art and culture, and 10 on Tagore studies. He served IGNCA as National Project Director, was a Tagore Research Scholar and is recipient of Padma Shri.

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