The only Government-run Kathaprasangam course in the State, taught at SMV Higher Secondary School, has given a fillip to the art form

Romancing a monk was never easy. Yet, this courtesan did that. Her longing for the handsome monk she saw outside her window one day, came alive in a quiet classroom in the city. The trials and tribulations of the lovelorn courtesan of Kumaranasan’s Karuna proves to be a moving experience, thanks to the oratorical skills of 21-year-old Gopika J. Vazhuthacaud. She is one of the youngest exponents of Kathaprasangam, a kind of storytelling that has its roots in the soil of the land. Listening to her in rapt attention were a group of students and teachers of Kathaprasangam.

The recitals are a weekly feature at Sree Moola Vilasom (SMV) Higher Secondary School in the city, the venue for a regular evening class in Kathaprasangam, the only such government-run course in the State. On Fridays, the staid classroom turns into a stage where budding talents are trained and honed. One after the other, the students, age no bar, present plays, as Kadaykode Viswambharan, V. Harshakumar and Ayilam Unnikrishnan, all renowned Kathaprasangam artistes, evaluate the performers’ narrative skills. On other days, they study the prescribed syllabi, covering a wide range of subjects (read box).

In his deep voice, another student, Somasekhar, a Government employee, takes listeners to ‘Vyasabharatham’. With his evocative narration, punctuated by acting, melodrama and music, he transports the audience to another period of time with his Kathaprasangam.

During the critiquing that follows, Somasekhar, better known as Aryanad Soman in the Kathaprasangam circuit, is advised not to use long sentences and keep the introduction short. Gopika too wins accolades for her narration but the teachers feel that she ought to speak more loudly so that her listeners could catch the gist of the dialogues without too much of an effort.

K. Madhu, a music teacher in Tamil Nadu and an alumni of the course, struggles a bit while presenting ‘Karnante Arangetam’, and the teachers feel he needs more practice. Gopika Krishnan, an undergraduate student, fails to impress with her performance, but her attitude and passion are applauded.

A class apart

One by one, the participants entertain the audience with tales from far and near. Then it is the turn of Viswambharan to tell us the story of this class with a difference.

“The course began in 1991. Since then we have had an enthusiastic group of people who come to learn the art. After each performance we comment on their performance and give suggestions,” says Viswambharan, who has been teaching here since the inception of the course.

Students, government employees, home-makers, teachers, bank employees, senior citizens…. it is a motley crowd that has come to learn Kathaprasangam.

Once upon a time, Kathaprasangam was an intrinsic part of the cultural landscape of Kerala, especially in Southern Kerala. As cinema and television made inroads into the State, Kathaprasangam had few takers. However, a recent revival has seen the art form getting a new lease of life.

“I have been performing Kathaprasangam since my class four and plan to continue. This course has helped me immensely and I keep coming here to get guidance from my teachers,” says Gopika, a postgraduate student of English literature at the Government College for Women. A first prize winner at the state school and University level youth fetes, she had passed the course with top marks.

Says Clara Noel, a student of the course and an employee at a counselling centre, “I have been a Kathaprasangam enthusiast for a long time. There is something in this art form that keeps me hooked to it,” says Clara. It is the same passion that brings people like Bhaskaran A.G., an employee with the University of Kerala, and Radhika M.P., who used to work at a private firm, to learn to be a raconteur.

Thomas Kuruvila, another student in the group, is an American citizen, who came to know about the course when he came down to stay with his family in the city. “Going to temple festivals was not heard of in my family and so I never really had the opportunity to see Kathaprasangam performances. But when I heard about the course, I couldn’t stop myself from joining it,” Thomas says.

It is more of a Kathaprasangam appreciation course, says Harshakumar. “We are not merely teaching them a script or story. They also learn how to perform in front of an audience, that is, how to address the gathering or how to commence and end a presentation. Above all, we help them ward off stage fear. This art form is not just storytelling. One’s clarity of diction, command over language, acting ability, knowledge about our literary past, social awareness, talent in singing… everything come into play. We are happy that a lot of our students have turned professional performers,” says Harshakumar.

The teachers say that there are enough talented artistes out there. “It is true that there are many who learn it just to win prizes during the youth festivals and stop performing after that. But Kathaprasangam hasn’t lost its appeal for sure. The enthusiasm shown by our students prove that it will not die,” says Ayilam Unnikrishnan. Now, that is another story waiting to be told.

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Devoted to the art

* It was the late Joseph Kaimaparamban, a legendary Kathaprasangam artiste himself, who took it upon himself to begin the course. He was a producer with All India Radio and had played a major role in popularising the art during his time. Kaimaparamban, Viswambharan, the late V. Sambasivan and Kallada V.V. Kutty were the first teachers. Initially, the plan was to teach the course at the Swati Tirunal College of Music, but sources say that the move was opposed by certain faculty members in the college. So it was shifted to SMV School. The course comes under the Directorate of Collegiate Education.

* The one-year course with 25 seats is open to those have passed class ten, age no bar. Classes are held on weekdays and the syllabus is divided into five parts. Part I is prose and works such as K.K. Vadhyar’s Kathaprasangam Enthu, Enthinu, Engane, P.Kesavadev’s Odayil Ninnu, Kuttikrishna Marar’s Bharataparyadanam, M.P. Paul’s Sahityavicharam and T. Padmanabhan’s Makhan Singhinte Maranam are taught. Part II covers poetry and the texts include Kumaranasan’s Duravastha, Ulloor’s Mrinalini, Vallathol’s Bharathasthreekal Than Bhava Shuddi, Vayalar’s Aayisha, parts from Ramayana, Krishnagatha and from Kunchan Nambiar’s Sabhapravesham thullal. Part III is Sanskrit, Part IV is music and Part V has presentations, wherein the students have to present portions from some of the above texts in Kathaprasangam format. While V.M. Karunakaran and E. Vijayan Yesudasan teach Malayalam, B. Sadasivan Nair teaches Sanskrit, and R. Sreekumaran Nair takes music classes.