The last two days of the Bhava Bhavanam fest saw some fine performances with superb musical support.
This is what happened on the Moonam and Naalam Divasam of Nalacharitham at the ‘Bhava Bhavanam’ festival hosted by Kalakshetra at its premises:
Having committed the ultimate crime of leaving Damayanthi alone in the forest while asleep, due to a streak of madness growing within him and partly due to an unselfish belief that she can seek refuge in her father’s kingdom if she is alone, Nala is naturally broken. The third day’s script was peppered with maudlin thoughts, when Nala or his alter ego Bahuga (Kalamandalam Gopi), is worried and guilty in turns.
The music had to be suitably soulful; vocalists Kottakkal Madhu and Nedumpally Rammohan set the tone with the opening Thodi padam, ‘Loka Palakan Maare,’ in which Nala (Kottakkal Kesavan Kundalayar) calls upon the gods and begs them to protect Damayanthi and him.
The musicians, including Kalamandalam Unnikrishnan (chenda), Sadanam Ramakrishnan (chenda, edakka), Kalamandalam Narayanan Nair and Kalamandalam Rajunarayanan (maddalam), repeated the sadness-enhancing feat over and over again in ‘Indu Moulee Harame’ (Dhanyasi), ‘Vijane Batha Mahathi’ (Thodi) and ‘Mariman Kanni Mauliyude’ (Dwijavanthi).
Of the sad padams, the lyrics, the rendering and the acting in ‘Vijane..’ was the most moving. Bahuga, now settled as a charioteer and cook in King Rituparna’s household, is tortured with images of Damayanthi, waking up alone in a forest surrounded by fierce creatures. The despair was so real you could almost feel his pain. The celebrated septuagenarian Kalamandalam Gopi as Bahuga displayed a masterful presence and deep involvement in the role-play.
Vadyam (percussion) including the chengila (gong) and elathalam (cymbals) handled by the singers, have an important place in the songs and in the free-form pieces in between, in which an actor’s state of mind is reiterated or stories within stories are enacted. While the chenda is used for males, the more delicate edakka is used for female characters, as sound effects for their enactment. The maddalam is a constant and provides the base rhythm for the group.
The most memorable segments were Bahuga describing Rituparna’s palace and an over-enthusiastic Sudeva (Peeshappaly Rajeev) describing an imaginary swayamvara with mighty kings and their elaborate retinues.
For a change, the final day of ‘Nalacharitham’ attakatha gave pride of place to a female character, Damayanthi. She is seen as the long-suffering, faithful wife, a role played with startling dexterity by a well-known stree vesham specialist, Margi Vijayan.
She starts out in a strongly positive vein in, ‘Theernnu Sandeham Ellam...’ (Punnagavarali), believing that she has finally found her husband Nala. There is a seed of doubt deep within her that shows her faltering half-way when she suddenly breaks down. She is disappointed when she does not see him in Rituparna’s chariot and laments her fate in ‘Swalppa Punnya Ayen’ (Nadanamakriya). Vijayan’s interpretive technique had less gestures and more communication through the eyes.
The maestro Kalamandalam Gopi (Bahuga) though outwardly nonchalant as Rituparna’s charioteer-cum-cook, showed hidden depth in his responses. During the conversation with Keshini (Vellinezhi Haridasan), who is unrelenting in her questioning, one could see how he reacted when Damayanthi (as Bhaimi) was mentioned, or when Keshini slyly asks him for stories of Nala. Otherwise, Gopi Asan was the indifferent servant sitting on the steps of his chariot and carrying on a casual conversation.
Bahuga opens up thereafter in a percussion interlude that he is disappointed at not having caught a glimpse of Damayanthi, and remarks at the irony of his situation that Damayanthi’s husband is now a servant to her suitor, but he keeps his true feelings hidden well.
The music (Pathiyur Sankarankutty, Kalamandalam Vinod - vocal, Kalamandalam Krishnadas - chenda, Kalamandalam Nataraja Warrier - maddalam, Kalamandalam Venumohan - edakka) was melodious and handled with a sense of delicacy, hitherto unseen. It is to be noted that there is no melodic accompaniment to the vocalists in Kathakali. The re-union scene, when Damayanthi approaches Bahuga cautiously in ‘Engalum Undo Kandu’ (Thodi) the soft music seemed to tiptoe around her feelings, and when she becomes sure of Bahuga’s identity in ‘O Premanuragini’ (Thodi), the music turned tender and full of longing.
Another point to note was the treatment of the climax, the reunion of the star-crossed lovers. There was no melodrama; contrary to the image of Kathakali that it is an exaggerated dramatic style; the actors remained calm and dignified, wading through their declarations of love, Nala’s suspicion over Damayanthi’s character and their final coming together. When the lovers finally embraced, the audience burst out in rapturous applause… 19 hours with the same characters, though with different actors, nurtured a sense of belonging with them. Even this lengthy a presentation is an abridged version, please be warned.
Kalakshetra did a fine job of planning and executing the ‘Bhava Bhavanam’ festival. The detailed programme notes (compiled by Sai Archana) projected on either side of the stage made a big difference to the rasikas’ understanding of the subtexts in the plot.