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Updated: February 5, 2014 18:31 IST

Kathakali goes pop

Liza George
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Cecile Bellat Photo: Liza George
The Hindu
Cecile Bellat Photo: Liza George

French artiste Cecile Bellat’s ‘People Exist’ is inspired by the Nalacharitham

Cecile Bellat admits that her performance ‘People Exist’ that was staged at Alliance Francaise de Trivandrum last night, is a work in progress.

“It is common in France to show a work, even though it is half done, for feedback. I too hope for feedback from the Kerala audience so that I can work on the areas that they think needs improving,” says the lithesome 42-year-old.

Inspired by the romance between Nala and Damayanthi in Nalacharitham, Cecile’s ‘People Exist’ tells the duo’s story through the use of Kathakali, Tholpavakoothu and pop songs.

Wait a minute, Kathakali, Tholpavakoothu and pop songs? A grinning Cecile says: “It is a challenge to set Kathakali steps to music from pop bands such as The Cure, Blondie and Depeche Mode but I think I have managed to do set the steps to the beat. I have chosen songs from those bands as I feel the songs gel well with the situations in the play. Likewise, a traditional Tholpavakoothu performance will have several puppet artistes handling the puppets. In ‘People Exist’, I am the only puppeteer and it is tough coordinating the puppets.”

A theatre artiste and singer, Cecile who hails from Brittany in the north west of France, first arrived in Kerala in 2011. “A few friends of mine who are part of a group called Prana invited me to Kerala for a cultural programme in which I learnt the basics of Kathakali, Mohiniyattam, Kalaripayattu and Carnatic music. By the end of the three week programme, I realised I wanted to learn more.”

The “wanting to learn more” brought her back to Kerala last year wherein she trained in Kathakali under the guidance of Sadanam Manikandan and Sadanam Vijayan. “I decided to learn Kathakali and not Mohiniyattam as I found the latter too soft and feminine; I preferred the male energy of Kathakali. Besides, I was fascinated how Kathakali artistes speak to the audience through gestures and expressions. It is different from French theatre where the actors rarely look and address the audience. Through fusing these genres, I hope to improve the communication between the stage and the audience in France.”

She adds: “Although I don’t intend to become a professional Kathakali artiste, I wanted to learn enough so that I would not show disrespect to such a rich art form when I perform.”

Having read a book on Tholpavakootu, Cecile decided to learn the art form from Tholpavakoothu artiste K.K. Ramachandra Pulavar. Apart from learning how to handle a puppet, she also learnt how to make puppets out of leather. “In fact, I have made all 12 puppets used in ‘People Exist’, myself.”

As there are “hardly any Tholpavakoothu plays staged from the Mahabharatha”, Cecile says the models for her puppets such as Nala and Damayanthi are based on Rama and Sita from the Ramayana. Narada is her favourite puppet in the collection.

But why Nalacharitham, when there are other more captivating stories? “Nalacharitham is a love story which has a lot of ups and downs, much like our love lives. When Nala leaves Damayanthi in the forest, the ‘why did he leave me?’ was something I could relate to as I had gone through something similar in my life. I felt the audience could relate to it as well,” says Cecile who thought of the idea of fusing Kathakali, pop songs and shadow puppetry when she first started using small plastic figurines to enact stories. “I used these figurines to narrate a Vietnamese folk tale to a group of children in France. I loved the way their eyes lit up. That is when I thought, why not try it with puppets.”

The artiste who will be heading back to France next week hopes to return soon with the fully worked ‘People Exist’. Meanwhile, with just a couple of days more in the city, Cecile hopes to catch some sights before she leaves. “I want to see the Padmanabhaswamy Temple and a few more important places before I go.”

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