Notes on Kathakali

Kathakalideepika   | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement


Kathakalideepika is an anthology of 19 articles on Kathakali, written on different occasions by S. Ganesa Iyyer, who earned unparalleled reputation as a discerning connoisseur of the art form. Iyyer was fortunate to have watched maverick Guru Chengannur Raman Pillai from his first appearance on the stage (arangettam) as Rugmini till his last performances as Narakasura and other gigantic Kathi characters in the ‘70s, spanning five decades and more. He was closely associated with the step by step development of Margi, the famous Kathakali-cum- Koodiyattam theatre in Thiruvananthapuram, from its inception in early ‘70s. His thorough familiarity with the Puranas and history , coupled with scholarship in Sanskrit, classical music, musicology and dramaturgy stood him in good stead in appreciating and evaluating performances on the Kathakali or Koodiyattam stage. The Malayalam journal Nrithyakalaramgam used to feature his articles codifying directions or guidelines to artistes in presenting various characters, avoiding all pitfalls of inappropriateness .

Unnayi Warrier’s unique narration of the life story of King Nala in four parts, has ever been a challenge to the artistes. Only select scenes of all the four ‘days’ find performance slots in temple festivals and in Kathakali clubs. Even among those scenes only very few are given a place in the curriculum of training institutions like Kerala Kalamandam.

It is in this context that Iyyer’s detailed guidelines on performing in full the fourth day of ‘Nalacharitham’ becomes significant. The scene presenting the re-union of Nala and Damayanti, according to Iyyer, should commence with the heroine awaiting eagerly the arrival of Nala in the guise of Bahuka, and not with the hero waiting for the heroine to walk in. According to master actor-dancers like the legendary Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, the present practice on the stage helps the hero maintain his position undisturbed. But, no doubt, Sri Iyyer’s interpretation does justice in full to the text and an alteration in choreography on this line is worth experimenting.

The performance guide Iyyer has provided to eight popular stories (‘Kalyanasaugandhikam’, ‘Narakasuravadham’, ‘Kiratham’, ‘Dakshayagam’, ‘Santhanagopalam’, ‘Balivijayam’, ‘Ambarishacharitham’ and ‘Duryodhanavadham’) and to ‘Paundrakavadham’, one of the most rarely staged stories, highlight most aspects of enacting those episodes in their entirety, without drastic deviations from the text, while indicating provisions for improvisation. His interpretation of ‘Paundrakavadham’ brings out several nuances of the story including the aesthetic excellence of the exquisite scene presenting Balabhadra’s intoxication and dalliance with the gopis.

In addition , the volume has detailed discussions of presentation possibilities of given characters appearing in commonly enacted stories such as ‘Nalacharitham’ and relatively uncommon stories such as ‘Vichhinnabhishekam’. The characters are Kali in the second and third days of ‘Nalacharitham’, Hidimbi in ‘Bakavadham’, Vasishthan in ‘Vichhinnabhishekam’, Vrishaparvavu in ‘Devayaniswayamvaram’, Kamsan and Akruran in ‘Kamsavadham’ and Sudeshna in ‘Kichakavadham’.

The value of the volume is significantly enhanced by Iyyer’s reminiscences of guru Chengannur Raman Pillai presenting not only titanic Kathi characters like Ravanan in ‘Udbhavam’, ‘Thoranayuddham’, ‘Balivijayam’ and ‘Ravanavijayam’, Banan, Kichakan and Vrishaparvavu, but also non-kathi characters like Nalan, Hamsam and Balabhadran in ‘Subhadraharanam’, Dakshan and Raudrabhiman, Yavana’s companion in ‘Ambarishacharitham’.

Lamentably many spelling mistakes have crept in. But for these drawbacks, Kathakalideepika is a commendable compendium of guidelines to artistes as well as connoisseurs of Kathakali.


S.Ganesa Iyyer



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Printable version | Apr 24, 2017 8:50:46 AM |