Kalakshetra's five-day Kathakali festival combined innovation and tradition by adapting western plays.
Over the past four to five decades, experiments have been made by several celebrated poets and scholars (including the late poet laureate Vallathol Narayana Menon) to compose new repertoires in Kathakali – which are based on Indian epics, western classics and on historical personalities and the total number roughly comes to about 200.
Except ‘Karnasapadam,' the debut of most of the stories was also its last performance. One reason for this was the diffidence of the aficionados in accepting new plays.
‘Karnasapadam,' which was written and composed by the late Mali V. Madhavan Nair in 1965, premiered in Delhi, on April 10, 1966. It was presented by the International Kathakali Centre.
Of late, attempts have been made to stage western plays through Kathakali including by foreigners such as Richard Tremblay (‘The Iliad') and David Macruvy (‘King Lear').
In this backdrop, it was interesting to watch the first ever Kathakali festival of western plays conducted recently at Kalakshetra, Chennai, once known for vibrant Kathakali training by thespians such as Gurus Chandu and Ambu Panicker.
Additionally, the festival was more or less a stock-taking of the aesthetics of the art and a brain-storming analysis about how innovations within tradition can be made successful. Like most Kathakali repertoires, the plays also culminate in either a death or a wedding.
The festival began with a brief but traditional kelikottu (playing of drums, gong and cymbals to formally announce a Kathakali performance) at the entrance of the theatre. The Kalakshetra artistes presented ‘Psyche,'(meaning soul) titled as ‘Sushama.' It was composed and choreographed by Sadanam Balakrishnan and grippingly unveiled the story of how love and soul joined together. The new dance patterns in group movements, which were confined to the Kathakali format were appealing. The play progressed gently from the purappadu (introduction in pure dance) with eight dancers. This was the only Kathakali play that portrayed Kamadeva or the Cupid as a protagonist, and P.T. Narendran made the role vibrant.
The well-rehearsed Viraja made the soliloquy of Sushama, “What more tragedy can befall me when I am ready to embrace death, but I have been punished for a sin that I was not even aware of, ” arresting, aided by the music.
Sophocles' ‘Oedipus,' presented on the second day by Manjuthara, Mangod, Palakkad, and performed by some of the faculty members and alumni of the Kerala Kalamandalam, failed to make the grade. A relatively young Krishnakumar, a trainer at the Kalamandalam played Oedipus, but he blindly imitated veteran Kalamandalam Gopi, known for punctuating the abhinaya with poses. He not only slowed the pace of the play but even confused the curtain-holders, who were unsure about when to end the scene. He also made mistakes in his kalashams (the dance sequence between the verses and at the end of a song). In the wedding sequence, the modern style of bouquet exchange between Oedipus and Jocasta was difficult to accept as Kathakali is known for its austerity.
Nevertheless, the performance by seasoned actors Kalamandalam Ramachandran Unnithan in the role of the half-man, half-lion Sphinx and Kalamandalam Soman as Creon, the minister, were bright and apt. Unfortunately, Creon was carelessly dressed in Kathi (knife type), although this fine character depicted in the attakkatha (Kathakali repertoire) possesses little rajo guna (arrogant and evil with a streak of valour).
So it was not a surprise that no mention was made of its director or choreographer. The next play was a neat presentation of Pierre Corneille's tragicomedy ‘Le Cid,' based on the legend of El Cid and re-named ‘Maharati,' by the Kalakshetra ensemble under the leadership of Sadanam Balakrishnan.
The plot pivoted on Don Rodrigue, his father Don Diegue, his girl friend Chimene and her father De Gormas. The lovers faced a crisis when Diegue was insulted by Gormas. Then at his father's request, Don Rodrigue killed Gormas. Despite her love for Rodrigue, Chimene initially wanted revenge… but finally taintless love won.
Sadanam gave Indian names to the characters to accommodate the Malayalam verses and so Don Rodrigue became Rohit, Chimene - Sumana, De Gormas - Lukanth, et al.
To clear a misunderstanding, the technique of flashback was also interestingly introduced in Kathakali instead of the traditional pakarnattam (same actor impersonating as other actors) for the first time.
All the vital ingredients of Kathakali were woven well in this play that showcased the enormous acting potential of Sadanam as the protagonist.
The role of Lukanth in Kathi type by Hari Padman was appealing because of his stylised mannerisms as was Vidya Girish in the difficult role of Sumana.
The fourth day's performance was Gandhi Seva Sadanam Kathakali Academy's ‘Charudatham', based on Julius Caesar, which revealed a versatile Sadanam Harikumar as the playwright, composer, costume-designer, choreographer, director, actor and singer. Harikumar, who had been focusing on singing lately, took up acting again after a long time with the role of Charudathan (Julius Caesar). The play was well conceived and performed without any compromise.
It was also very heartening to observe a few well-set new kalashams and movement patterns and the new costumes that he introduced for Cassius re-named as Dandi (Sadanam Krishnadas) in the play.
The play did not end with the killing of Julius Caesar, but moved on from Mark Antony's (Keertibhadran, donned by Kalanilayam Balakrishnan) funeral speech to Cassius and Brutus' (Jayasenan, by Sadanam Manikandan) suicide. After playing his role, Harikumar appeared on stage as the lead vocalist.
‘Othello' by Kalakshetra brought the curtains down on the festival. Apart from Sadanam Balakrishnan (as Othello), Leela Samson in the role of Desdemona was an attraction of this well choreographed play. Without any sort of over acting, unwanted stage movements or unnecessary emotional outburst and by upholding the sthayi (the dominant emotion of the role and play), Sadanam Balakrishnan lifted the character, justifiably wearing a costume similar to the Bahuka, disguised Nala, of ‘Nalachiritam' play.
The audience saw great performances from Sadanam and Samson, who vied with each other during the sringara abhinaya and in their moments of grief, due to a misunderstanding created by a treacherous Iago.
Rich with lasya
The careful execution of Leela Samson saw a nayika (heroine) rich with lasya (graceful and languorous movements). She was able to overcome the basic thandava (masculine vigour) oriented lasya that female roles of Kathakali usually depict, as such roles are taken up by male actors.
The special costumes enhanced her portrayal which was surprisingly devoid of Bharatanatyam influence.
The duo was very careful about the limited boundaries of acting in Kathakali. Thus the performance of this play with fascinating and highly thoughtful libretto in chaste Malayalam demonstrated how a new repertoire in Kathakali style should be composed, choreographed and executed.
All the three plays presented by the Kalakshetra were based on Sadanam's composition, choreography and were under his directorship and he improvised some of the characterisations of Kathakali, for instance the role of Iago. Some of his lines were very moving. An added charm of the festival was the rendering of vocalists Palanad Divakaran, Nedumpilly Rammohan, Kalamandalam Rajesh Menon, Sadanam Harikumar, Sadanam Sivadasan and Jyotish Babu.
Even in Kerala, the birthplace of Kathakali, very rarely has the art been given such a stage, ambience (with excellent lighting) and reception as the audience that packed the auditorium on all five days.
Power point presentations were provided on all the days simultaneously to ensure that the audience understood the play scene by scene and the programme was also online. A brief description of the storyline before the start of each day's performance or distribution of printed synopsis would have helped the audience more.