Music and emotion matched in glorious harmony, one leading the other in a burst of creative beauty.
The fourth edition of ‘Bhava Bhavanam,’ Kalakshetra Foundation’s annual Kathakali festival is presenting ‘Nalacharitham,’ written by poet Unnayi Variar (1665-1725), over five days by senior artists and gurus such as Kalamandalam Gopi, Kalamandalam Balasubrahmanian and Kottakkal Chandrasekhara Warrier. It is for the first time that the entire play is being enacted in Chennai. As envisioned by Sadanam P.V. Balakrishnan Asan of Kalakshetra, the performances are preceded by lectures of prominent scholars such as Sadanam Harikumar, Narayanan Nampoothiry, Prof. M.V. Narayanan and Kalamandalam MPS Namboodiri.
The story of the romantic and courageous couple, Nala and Damayanthi, is from the Mahabharatha, and is related to Yudhishtira to console him after his defeat in the game of dice. According to singer-Kathakali artist Sadanam K. Harikumar, Unnayi Variar’s version is more colourful - he has introduced new characters - chiefly, Kali, a personification of evil or adharma that gets into Nala and Pushkara to corrupt them and a golden swan that brings the lovers together. The scholar declares Unnayi Variar’s version to be one of the most poetic love stories from Kerala. It is so emotionally charged that he equates it to a Tyagaraja composition, classifying most other plays as Dikshitar’s compositions that are less emotional and more technically accurate in the language and grammar.
AIR executive and Kathakali padam specialist Narayanan Nampoothiry spoke of Unnayi Variar as a master craftsman, even in the floral garlands he wove in the temple as per his family’s traditional occupation. He spoke of the human emotions that the poet-playwright brings out and the use of soliloquy as a key theatrical tool that even secondary characters such as King Rituparna, an ardent suitor, and Keshini, Damayanthi’s maid, remain etched in memory. Despite the contrary thinking in the 18 century, Unnayi Variar presented Damayanthi as a strong, loyal and practical woman who will not be swayed even by the gods. The scholar went on to say that, in this context it would not be wrong to call this play ‘Damayanthi Charitham!’
With symbols representing Kathakali and the warriors of the region arranged suggestively in a far corner of Rukmini Arangam, (curiously, it resembled Krishna seated on an elephant), ‘Nalacharitham’ unfolded in its dramatic glory. The four-hour performance was powered by Sadanam Balasubrahmanian’s commanding presence as the brave King Nala, the comic and dramatic visuals of the animated golden swan (Sadanam Bhasi), the quiet dignity of the heroine Damayanthi (Kalamandalam Shanmukhan) and sublime music.
Hearing about Damayanthi from Sage Narada and others, Nala gets infatuated. In a beautiful progression of the romance within Nala, the padam ‘Kundina Nayaka’ in Kalyani raga builds up the intensity of emotion slowly until it reaches a crescendo in the gloriously sung padam, ‘Anudinam Valarunnu Anuragam,’ also in Kalyani. Music and the emotion matched in glorious harmony, one leading the other in a burst of creative beauty.
Nala pines for Damayanthi and describes her ‘thick, long, curly hair like the dark clouds’ with much intimacy and relish in ‘Mudhira Thathi’ padam (Kalyani), it was acting at its most subtle and intense level. The tragicomedy style prevalent in Kathakali dramas came to the fore in Nala’s diversions with the veena and the mridangam, that turn out to be futile. It turned unabashedly comic when the golden bird cries piteously when Nala catches it, saying he is his mother’s only son that his wife has just given birth.
There is so much to relish in the drama written over two centuries ago - the style of storytelling, the little details, the theatrical tools such as the narration in between, the conversations that are almost soliloquies in themselves because the participation or movement from the listener is minimal, the sublime music and the emphasis on the lyrics, the list is endless. The music by Kalanilayam Unnikrishnan and Sadanam Shivadasan (vocal), Kalamandalam Balaraman (chenda), Kalanilayam Prakasan (maddalam) and Sadanam Ramakrishnan (edakka) was an inspiring experience on its own.