The metamorphosis in Kathakali
- Satish Suri
Photos courtesy: Gabriel Hart

June 15, 2013

Noted Kathakali actor Sadanam Balakrishnan gave a solo performance on the concluding day of his two day workshop on 2nd June at the NGMA in Bangalore under the auspices of ICCR and NGMA. As he stepped out from the green room to the centre stage the metamorphosis of the character, the splendor of his costume and jewellery made a magnificent spectacle. Sadanam chose to extemporize ‘Nala Charitram’ essaying the role of Nala, the king of Nishada, with a facile virtuosity and aesthetic creativity.

The opening sequence began with the rhythmic play of the percussion ensemble consisting of the chenda, maddalam, chengila and elathalam emphasizing the importance of rhythm and its intricacies in the Kathakali repertoire. The skill and virtuosity of the artistes were clearly evident though the duration of their playing could have been reduced. The first padam “Kudinanayaka Nandini” explores Nala thinking and dreaming of the beauty and charm of Damayanthi. His love grows on hearing Narada extolling the virtues of Damayanthi and her impeccable beauty. Nala suffers from the agony of love and feels he has lost control of the kingdom. There are two options before him; either to live a life of solitude or get the companionship of the woman he loves.

In the Ilakyaattam that followed, the hero’s state of mind is portrayed, his constant thinking of the impeccable beauty of Damayanthi as he imagines her face, eyes, lips and her brow. Forlorn, he explores ways to get his beloved by defeating the king in a battle and abducting   Damayanthi which on reconsideration appears foolish. His loss of interest in the affairs of the kingdom turns him to reading books and music which he soon abandons. Though despair overwhelms him, Nala hopes for a change. Sadanam’s effective improvisation of delineating Nala’s moods, his conflict between hope and despair were gracefully expressed and personified by the hand gestures and movements. The playing of the veena and mridangam were vividly illustrated. As Sadanam remarked in his workshop, balance and energy control were the key elements. The eye is a well of delight for a Kathakali artist. Years of training of the eyes ensure their use to convey the emotions graphically. Constant eye contact with the audience is the classical feature in the dramatization of the narrative.

The second padam “Lokapaalanmaare” shows Nala and Damayanthi getting married after many trials and tribulations. Nala soon loses his kingdom and goes wandering in the forest in search of Damayanthi. Alone, he ponders over his destiny and in a philosophical bent of mind prays for strength and protection. Nala is confronted by a remarkable incident in the forest. A pregnant deer is trapped in the midst of a hunter, a lion in search of prey, a river in flood and a raging forest. Thus surrounded, the deer collapses and becomes unconscious. As if by heavenly dispensation there is thunder, lightning and rain which bring solace. The hunter’s bow slips and the arrows strike at the lion which is killed. The deer gives birth. Nala on seeing this feels comforted by the thought that the divine will also protect him and Damayanthi. In enacting these scenes, Sadanam established a commendable synchronicity of communication between face, eyes, hand gestures and movements as he explored every bhava to delineate the story with mesmerizing artistry and skill much to the delight of the audience.

The music ensemble consisting of Rajesh Menon and Raghav Varma on the vocals, Kalamandalam Krishnadas on the chenda and Ramesh on maddalam, brought rhythm and synergy to the performance by their excellent percussion and vocalization. Through his performance Sadanam Balakrishnan was able to establish the range and vocabulary of Kathakali as a versatile and glorious art form.

Satish Suri has been an ardent follower of dance and music for more than 40 years, starting with being on  the committee of the International Music and Arts Society founded by Vijaya Devi, sister of the Late Maharaja of Mysore, Jayachamarajendra Wodeyar and now presently is treasurer of World Dance Alliance Karnataka Chapter. He has presented several artistes, both dancers and musicians, over the last 40 years.