Kathakali, the world famous classical dance theatre of Kerala.
Kottayam Thampuran was a chieftain of the principality of Kottayam in northern Kerala when the East India Company started interfering in the affairs of the local rulers.
The play opens with a forest scene. In the depth of the wilderness, Kumarakam waterfalls tumble down into a crocodile infested river. This is the home of the fury of nature. We see courtiers bringing a prince in chains. The queen mother has ordered to kill him. The wise men of the court want to abandon the prince to his chances while his uncle and cousin push him into the torrent. The opening scene highlights the main and the subplots of the play. The strange story of a Queen mother ordering the death of her only son is woven into court intrigue. The deep division in high places is another subplot that has been part of political history down the ages. Light and sound create a spectacle that captures the attention of the audience.
The technique of narration is used to link the prologue to the plot and to carry the story forward.
The unrecorded history of Kerala is shrouded in mystery; legends add poetry to history.
The Prince of Kottayam grows up as an eccentric youth refusing to learn the arts of war and the tenets of governance. Yet tradition demands that the male progeny should be crowned when he comes of age. The Queen Mother tries all conventional methods to make the Prince a normal person. Finally, fear of ill fame drives her to order the death of her son. Court-intrigue plays fiddle to get his cousin getting crowned.
However destiny has cast a different design for the Prince. Miraculously saved from the death-trap, the Prince finds himself a devotee of the Muse. As in the story of the great Kalidasa, the Muse blesses him to be a poet. Perhaps the shock of reality cures him of his waywardness.
The distraught Queen seeks him and takes him back to the palace. He is a sober ruler now taking care of the welfare of his people, establishing diplomatic relations with neighboring kings to avoid war and devoting himself to writing.
Kathakali, a dance-theatre with classical dimension is his brain-child. Although the plots are culled from the Mahabharata, the scenes reek with real life situations and heroes and heroines acquire human proportions.
Now trouble comes in another form; the East India Company wants to kill him and annex his kingdom. He sends his pregnant queen and mother to safety and enters the wilderness to devote to writing. Hounded by the British, the death scenes in his writings have a rare poignancy. He leaves an invaluable legacy, Kathakali to posterity.
The play is structured like a Kathakali piece. As in Kathakali, off-stage narration takes us back to the prologue from the first stunning scene. Although the first half is rather long winding, the second half is aesthetically designed. The scenes from his poetic dramas, as the impassioned writer pens them, are charming with the live performances of Kathakali. The play succeeds in highlighting the human aspects of his stories.
Kathakali lyrics in its special music give an authentic touch to the entertaining aspect. The visuals add richness with the Kathakali costume. The palace scenes showcase the simplicity of the culture of Kerala. The dialogue reverberates with contemporary social issues.
Although Santhosh Meenambalam, the director won the state award for this year's best direction in the recently concluded competition, the play suffers from a major weakness. The attempt to mask court intrigue in the guise of the comic, verges on buffoonery.
The actors try to do justice to their roles. But the Queen mother is not majestic. Loud acting does not display power. Thampuran, Santhosh Kannur who won the state award for the best actor, is quite regal in the second half.
Lighting, even when it creates a spectacle in the beginning, becomes filmy during the dance sequence.
and the dialogue make the play a perfect period piece. It appeals to all
sections of the audience is its positive side. And cultural Kerala recalls
its fond memories of a writer-prince who carved a niche for her in world
Padma Jayaraj is a freelance journalist. She covers fine arts and travel for The Hindu, and is a regular contributor to narthaki.com