Ambareesha Charitham was dominated by theatrics and entertainment

Upanyasam scholar B. Sundarkumar, who placed the story of the evening performance in context each day during the ‘Bhaava Bhaavanam - Gurustvam’ Kathakali festival, called ‘Ambareesha Charitham’, ‘a story of bhakti.’ He expounded the need for truth and dharma for devotion to be efficacious. Ambareesha, the King of Ayodhya, was both noble and pious, and is hence protected by Lord Vishnu against all calamities.

Without denying the moral in the story, the evening performance by the Unnayi Warrier Smaraka Kalanilayam, Irinjalakuda, was all about theatrics, action and entertainment. Kathakali artist Appukuttan Nair, who anchored the morning lec-dem, had said that the dance-drama, taken from the Bhagavata Purana, revolved around the central character, Sage Durvasa (Kalanilayam Gopi), as seen in varied circumstances - as a devout Saivite sage in the opening ‘Chandra Chooda Paahimam’ (Bilahari), as an angry rishi in ‘Parthiva Hathaka Nee Samprathi Cheythathu’ (Bilahari) when he is supposedly insulted by Ambareesha and finally as a pathetic version of himself pleading for his life.

The Attakatha was written by Aswati Tirunal Ilaya Tampuran, a member of the Travancore royal family, in the traditional mix of Malayalam padams and Sanskrit narrative verses in between. It has fewer padams than most as the percussive element dominates the second half. There is also a greater number of kalashams, rhythmic sequences, in between the padams. This, one understands is not the author’s diktat, but the conventional mode of presentation.

Pace in dance dramas

Appukuttan had also mentioned the progression in pace in dance dramas- the first hour in ‘Ambareeshacharitham’ was a leisurely exchange between Durvasa and Ambareesha (Kalanilayam Gopinathan) as the king welcomed the sage and was in turn commended for his deep devotion to Vishnu (‘Dinamani kula deepame,’ Begada), with a subtle undercurrent of spite running though the praise.

The pace picked up with a restless Ambareesha in ‘Endaho Cheyvadu’ (Anandabhairavi) who is waiting for Durvasa to break his Ekadasi fast within the prescribed time. A bright Brahmin boy (Sadanam Bhasi) appears and advises him to take a sip of water as an auspicious drink.

Durvasa reacts angrily, and on cue, the hitherto melodious singers (Kalamandalam Narayanan Embranthiry, Kalanilayam Rajeevan Namboothiry) went into overdrive with aggressive delivery of lyrics. Magically the number of percussionists doubled to two chenda drummers (Kalamandalam Sivadas, Kalanilayam Ratheesh), two maddalam players (Kalamandalam Haridas, Kalanilayam Prakasan), others with two pairs of cymbals and a gong, and the decibel levels increased manifold.

Bloodcurdling screams rented the air as Durvasa created a demoness Krithya (FACT Biju Bhasker) from his hair. She appears from behind the make-do curtain, tiraiseela, in a traditional presentation, that entails tantalising glimpses of the face and upper body before the final reveal. Many screams later, Lord Vishnu’s weapon, Sudarshana (Kalanilayam Manoj), scorches Krithya and comes after Durvasa. Durvasa is seated on a stool with his back turned, and suddenly contorts his face when he feels the heat from the fire torches behind him. That is the level of involvement in the portrayals, and both the protagonists had it. Durvasa runs from Sudarshana, through the three worlds and into the audience. There was no holdback in Durvasa’s desperation as he tries to get away, hiding even under a maddalam on stage. The chase is long and eventful, and finally Ambareesha saves the sage with a beautifully rendered prayer to Vishnu, ‘Uttama Pooman Udaya..’ in Nilambari. The extra drums vanish and the atmosphere goes back to the soft mode...

Artistry at its best

To fill a gap in one of the morning sessions, veteran artist V.P. Dhananjayan, a Kalakshetra alumnus, spoke of his experiences in the haloed institution and demonstrated a 30-minute piece taught to him by visiting professor and legend, Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, regarding a pregnant deer surrounded by danger in a dense forest - in the form of a hunter on one side, a tiger on another, a fire at the back and a raging river in front. Like a beautifully drawn canvas, Dhananjayan brought the incident alive with sensitive characterisations of a deer going into labour being watched by a ready-to-pounce tiger and a hard-hearted hunter. There is a narrator there and as he waits with bated breath, nature comes to the deer’s rescue. Realising that danger has passed, the deer gives birth. We get to see the fawn as the mother nuzzles him and he opens his eyes for the first time and takes his first faltering steps. This piece is performed without lyrics with the skilful Sadanam Ramakrishnan (chenda) embellishing the details and Sadanam Devadas (maddalam) providing the base rhythm. It was artistry at its best.