Drisyavedi, a cultural forum run by a group of Kathakali enthusiasts, has played a pivotal role in keeping alive the classic theatre tradition of Kerala, particularly Kathakali, in the city

In the flickering light of a traditional wicker lamp, mythological heroes and heroines, anti-heroes and crass villains, gods and demi-gods occupy centre stage. As sonorous music and scintillating rhythm set the pace, memorable characters from the epics create a world of their own on the stage. Nala pining for his love, Damayanthi; Ravana striding across the stage, at once fearsome as he is majestic; Bhima taking revenge on his cousins Duryodhana and Dusassana for insulting his wife, Draupadi’s honour; Sree Krishna compelling the audience to virtuous thoughts by his words and actions…

If these and many other characters that populate the pages of Kathakali texts continue to be familiar to audiences in the city, it’s largely thanks to dedicated efforts of a bunch of Kathakali enthusiasts, working under the aegis of Drisyavedi. For the past 41 years, the cultural forum, which has some 600-plus members on its rolls, has been actively involved in promoting and propagating Kerala’s classical theatre, particularly Kathakali, in the city.

Beginning November 24, Drisyavedi will be conducting its annual ‘Natyotsavam’, this time around, an eight-day pageantry of classical arts, themed on Nalacharitham.

Drisyavedi was established in February, 1972, by Madavoor Bhasi (1926 to 2007), an author, playwright and one of the biggest names in Malayalam radio theatre . “Madavoor formed Drisyavedi with the intention of promoting and staging Kathakali of a high standard, maintaining the purity of the art form and also, most importantly, to create an audience for Kathakali and the classical arts. That’s why, apart from the literal meaning of ‘platform for a scene/drama’, Drisyavedi also means ‘one who knows what a scene is,’” says C.G. Rajagopal, founder-president of the club, and former Hindi professor and Malayalam poet.

Indeed, over the past four decades Drisyavedi has organised the staging of just about every known attakatha (performance manual) in Kathakali and other forms of classical theatre and that too often to packed houses. For the performances it has brought to the city some of Kathakali’s greatest artistes, from the late Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, Chengannur Raman Pillai, Mankulam Vishnu Namboodiri, Keezhapadam Kumaran Nair, and Kudamaloor Karunakaran Nair to present doyens such as Kalamandalam Gopi and Kalamandalam Balasubramanian, and just about everyone in between.

“We are proud that Drisyavedi is the only cultural society in the city that has been continuously conducting at least one programme a month ever since its inception,” says former bureaucrat S. Srinivasan, long-time secretary of Drisyavedi, who is also the secretary of Margi. “To date we have strived to uphold Madavoor’s vision to present the arts in all their traditional purity, in the highest standards of presentation possible. We also continue to conduct appreciation classes. In fact, former chief minister and Kathakali buff the late C. Achyutha Menon, at a farewell function organised on his behalf after his term in office, had remarked that had never seen Kathakali of such a high standard than at Drisyavedi. Also, as an organisation, we make it a point to treat the northern and southern styles of Kathakali equally, which we think is important for the future of the art form,” adds Srinivasan.

Drisyavedi does not have a performance space for itself and usually conducts its programmes at the Karthika Tirunal Theatre or at the Theerthapada mandapam, both at East Fort. In fact, it doesn’t even have an office space. “Members of the executive committee take turns to hold meetings at each other’s houses,” says Srinivasan.

As with many such organisations that are run completely on donations from members and well-wishers, the biggest worry for the members are the finances. Says Srinivasan: “There is only so much that we can ask of our members and it is always a struggle to get sponsorship. Often we have to dip into our own pockets or those of our families. But we don’t mind because we are doing it out of our love for Kathakali.”

CURTAINS UP

Apart from the monthly programmes, every year Drisyavedi holds two major festivals – the ‘Kerala Rangakalotsavam’, which is now in its 18th year, and the ‘Natyotsavam’ in November-December, the upcoming one being the 25th edition. Explains Srinivasan: “‘Rangakalotsavam’ was started to familiarise people, particularly students from the University of Wisconsin in the United States, with a variety of classical arts such as Kathakali, Chakyarkoothu, Nangiarkoothu, Thullal, Kathakali music recital, classical Malayalam poetry and ritualistic art forms such as Ayyappan Theeyaattu. Even though the students stopped coming a few years ago, we thought it was prudent to continue the fete.”

The Kalotsavam, meanwhile, celebrates the arts based on a common theme. For instance, the first edition of the fete was themed on the text of Kalyanasougandhikam and had performances of the same in Kathakali, Seethankan Thullal, Koodiyattam and so on. Other popular themes have been plays such as Nalacharitham and Thoranayudham, characters such as Ravana, Arjuna, Bhima, Sree Krishna, playwrights such as Kottyathu Thampuram, Irayimman Thampi, attakathas based on Ramayanam, Bhagavatham, and so on. “This way the audience gets to see a particular character, narrative and the like through various art forms, through various perspectives,” explains P. Venugopal, former Malayalam professor and joint secretary of the club. From 2006 Drisyavedi has been documenting on video all its performances, all available to buy on DVD on request.

CITY OF RASIKAS

The city has had a long tradition of private individuals joining hands to support and promote Kathakali. The first was the (now defunct) Thiruvananthapuram Kathakali Club. Says Dr. Venugopal: “It was perhaps the first such club in the State, established in the 1930s, by scholar, playwright and author V. Krishnan Thampi, former principal of the Sanskrit College. Prof. Thampi was a modern thinker and he was the one who took the initiative to shift Sanskrit College from within the confines of East Fort to its present campus at Palayam, in order to open up Sanskrit education to the masses. Incidentally, he also took part in the independence struggle in Ireland and was even jailed for it there! Prof. Thampi was a keen Kathakali enthusiast and even authored the play ‘Thadakavadham’, which is arguably one of the finest of modern Kathakali attakathas to date. Because of Prof. Thampi’s royal connections – he was the brother-in-law of Maharaja Moolam Thirunal Rama Varma – the club also enjoyed royal patronage and functioned well in to the 1980s- early 1990s. Before the club was formed, the only place to watch Kathakali was in temples. Prof. Thampi introduced the concept of evening performances, 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., in the city, which helped open up the art form to a wider audience.”