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Kalidasa Natyotsavam
- Devaki and Gayathri
Photos courtesy: Natana Kairali

March 22, 2018

To have witnessed the 5th Kalidasa Natyotsavam conducted by Natana Kairali at Irinjalakkuda was an enriching experience and something to cherish forever. It gave us the opportunity to see some beautiful works of Mahakavi Kalidasa unfold in the language of Koodiyattam, under the able guidance of Guru G. Venu. It was also a chance for us to interact and learn from some great artists and academicians, like Ettumanoor P. Kannan, George S. Paul, Abheesh Sasidharan, Nirmala Panikker, Sreelakshmi Govardhanan, Kapila Venu, and others.

G. Venu introducing the Kalidasa plays

The first day began with a talk by Abheesh Sasidharan. Sreelakshmi Govardhanan, an accomplished Kuchipudi artist, presided over the session and talked about her experiences while reading the works of Kalidasa, on how the poet represents the human emotions through the changes in nature and so on. Abheesh presented a paper on the 'Perspectives in Koodiyattam and contemporary theatre.' He put forward instances like Kailasodharanam, where the artist creates the illusion of an object through his performance. He or the character, perceives the object - its height, length, breadth, the depth, the distance between the character and the object, etc. In Kailasodharanam, Ravana assesses the size of Mount Kailasa before he lifts it. He moved on to mention the various spaces which were used to stage Koodiyattam and Nangiarkoothu inside temples, and how the present day proscenium stages could be modified to suit a Koodiyattam performance.

The talk on the second day was presented by eminent Kathakali actor Ettumanoor Kannan. His talk took us into the different layers that go into abhinaya, the topic being 'The prospect of abhinaya in text'. He cited examples from Attakathas on how a text is interpreted. He said that first the word to word meaning of the text is presented, and the actor then moves on to express the essence of the words. He explained this as Padarthabhinaya. He talked about the concept of Bhavaprakasam (where the bhava of the words are portrayed not just through mudras but the entire body and mind). He quoted slokas from Attakathas like Kirmeeravadham penned by Kottayam Thamburan to explain the importance of a text, the vocabulary used, the pace to which the padam is set, and so on in order to give the actor ample scope to bring out the bhava of the scene enacted in its entirety.

On the final day of the festival, Dilip Verma presented in his poetic style, the various facets of Meghasandesam that gave it scope for being visually translated. He mentioned examples like the explanation of geography in the work, the aerial view of Alakapuri as seen by the cloud messenger. He mentioned many other instances in the work like the misery of the Yaksha, the appearance of the cloud like an elephant, the detail of the Mahakaleswara temple of Ujjain, that made it suitable for a Koodiyattam performance. Watching the ancient Sanskrit theatre for three consecutive days was truly mesmerizing.

Ammannur Rajneesh Chakyar as Sootha and Pothiyil Ranjith Chakyar as Dushyanta in Abhijnana Sakuntalam

Being dancers, we had a fine opportunity to watch and learn from the performances of seasoned actors like Kapila Venu, Sooraj Nambiar, Ammannur Rajneesh Chakyar and Pothiyil Ranjith Chakyar, who portrayed different characters on these three days. On the first day, the most popular play of Kalidasa, Abhijnana Sakuntalam was performed, followed by Vikramorvaseeyam and Sitaparityagam (from Raghuvamsam) on the next days. The feeling one has while watching this grand art form cannot be put to words. The delight and bliss can only be experienced and felt within ourselves.

The characters portrayed by the artists are still fresh in our minds. The life they blew into the characters of Kalidasa under the able guidance of Guru Venu G is worth mentioning. From the point of view of a humble audience who is smitten by this art, certain sequences from the performances deserve mention. The Pakarnattam which is a very important aspect of Koodiyattam was exhilarating to watch. The Sootha's (Ammannur Rajneesh Chakyar) description of Dushyanta's failed hunting expedition was exciting. The shift between the Sootha, Dushyanta and the deer were clearly portrayed. We could see the desperation in Dushyanta, the fear in the deer and its frantic attempts to escape the arrow and the Sootha's emotions while seeing all this, were brilliant.

Sooraj Nambiar as Pururavas in Vikramorvaseeyam

On the second day, the play Vikramorvaseeyam was performed. This play gives immense scope for Pakarnattam. The portion where Pururavas (Sooraj Nambiar) explains the birth of Urvasi from the Uru or thigh of the sage Naarayana, was striking. Sooraj Nambiar became the pompous Indra, the sage Naarayana and the elegant and graceful Apsaras who had come to disrupt the sage's penance with their charm. The audience no doubt was enchanted by Sooraj Nambiar's Apsaras. During a workshop, a female Kuchipudi artist said that we (women) could never match the elegance and poise of Satyabhama, Rukmini or any other female character portrayed by male dancers. This observation stood true in Sooraj Nambiar's pakarnattam.

"The genius of Venuji was seen when the drama of Palazhimadhanam was incorporated within the play Vikramorvaseeyam," said Ettumanoor Kannan in his talk. The original text only states that during the performance, Urvasi was banished from the land of the Devas to the earth for saying Pururava instead of Purusothama in the portion of Lakshmi swayamvaram. Here the sequence of Palazhimadhanam, Koormavataram of Lord Vishnu and the entry of Goddess Lakshmi are shown as being performed by Urvasi in the Indrasabha. The entry of Urvasi as Goddess Lakshmi holding the Utpalamala in her hand amidst the lamps was a grand sight.

On the last day, Kapila Venu presented Sitaparityagam Nangiarkoothu. To watch her depict the states of mind of various characters like Rama, Lakshmana, Sage Valmiki, Sita and Lava-Kusa was fascinating. We could relate to the characters and visualise them before us. We could experience the dilemma faced by Lakshmana on abandoning Sita in the forest, her seething anger on hearing the truth about their visit to the forest. One part which stays vividly in mind is when Sita orders Lakshmana to go away from the forest. Her eyes follow the path Lakshmana takes and when he is far away, Sita shudders, probably at her pitiful state, for a split second, recollects her courage and strength and moves on. The sequence of Lava and Kusa undergoing training in the ashram were lively and entertaining. It made us laugh and think at the same time. The desperate attempts by Rama to bring Sita back on seeing Bhumidevi take her, was touching. There was much to reflect deeply in every scene presented in the play. One cannot forget the fine mizhavu and edakka players who accompanied the artists on all three days. Their artistry helped to embellish every gesture performed by the actors on stage. The precision with which they anticipate every move by the performer is commendable. The accompaniment they provide add to the effectiveness of the emotion created the actors.

Kapila Venu as Urvasi in Vikramorvaseeyam

These three days were the result of the relentless labour of a number of people who have dedicated themselves to preserving the beautiful and majestic art of Koodiyattam and Nangiarkoothu. Away from the crowd and rush of the city life, this festival was a blessing in disguise. The calm and serene atmosphere in Natana Kairali is infectious. The days were filled with learning, listening, observing and revisiting what we had learned before. We are truly grateful to Guru Venu G, and every artist and scholar who worked to give us such a remarkable time. Their sincere efforts to propagate and popularise these art forms in its pure and true essence is laudable. We are grateful for the efforts of Guru Nirmala Paniker for giving us so much to learn and understand about our traditional art forms like Nangiarkoothu and Mohiniyattam.

Devaki and Gayathri are Bharatanatyam dancers from Mythilalaya Dance Academy.