Kalakshetra’s third annual Kathakali Festival, ‘Bhaava Bhaavanam-Raajasam’, presented well-known ‘katti veshams’ from the traditional repertoire. The romantic, courageous and aggressive anti-heroes from the Puranas such as Ravana, Duryodhana, Keechaka and Narakasura who represent ‘rajas’ attributes, took centre stage in the intimate space of Rukmini Arangam. For three hours every day, mythological stories came alive through descriptive screenplay, bhava-laden music and some brilliant portrayals. Projecting the synopsis of each scene during the performance made them more accessible to a wider audience.

‘Rajasam,’ curated by Asan Sadanam P. V. Balakrishnan, Head of Department of Kathakali at Kalakshetra, was dedicated to the memory of Sankara Menon, a stalwart of the institution. It commenced with Bali Vijayam starring Kalamandalam Krishna Kumar as Ravana and closed with a special five-hour dance-theatre production, ‘Narakasura Vadham’ with senior artist Kottakkal Keshavan Kundalayaar in the lead.

Kathakali combines acting, gestures, music, movement and percussion, but theatrics is its mainstay. More important than the story itself are the asides that spice up the performance. It is these details that define the success of the performance. ‘Uttara Swayamvaram’ opened with a romantic padam, ‘Kalyani Kanka Mamavallabhe’ in which Duryodana (Injakkad Ramachandran Pillai) tells his wife Bhanumathi (Kalamandalam Sucheendran) that the Chakravakam bird mistakes her beautiful face for the moon and dreading separation from its mate at moonrise, looks angrily at her while casting mournful eyes on its mate. It was such a beautiful moment, with the actor changing expressions deftly as he looked from side to side. The technique is called ‘ekalochanam.’

But the play belonged to Nelliyodu Vasudevan Namboodri, who portrayed Susarma, King of Trigartha, with comic spontaneity. His adventures in the Virata kingdom where he is sent to steal cattle and his mocking of Bhima who is disguised as a cook, was beyond technique, beyond an actor’s communication ability. It was a brilliant essay. Underlining the dramatic moments with telling sound effects were Raman Namboodri (chenda) and Kalanilayam Rajan (maddalam). Streevesham by Sucheendran was dignified. The full-throated music by Kalamandalam Rajesh Menon and Kottakal Narayanan soared in the air, only to be punctured by their ill-timed forays.

The suggestive and subtle acting technique of P. V. Balakrishnan (Keechaka) and the unmatched melody of Kottakal Madhu and Kalamandalam Rajesh Menon (vocal) dominated ‘Keechaka Vadham.’ The three-hour play that dealt with Keechaka’s lust that ultimately leads to his death, had a star-studded cast with Leela Samson (Sairandri), P.T. Narendran (Valala) and Viraja (Sudeshana).

For over two and a half hours, Keechaka’s presence filled the stage as he falls in love at first sight and proceeds to woo Sairandri initially with sweet words and later with quiet desperation. ‘Harinakshi’ (Khambodi) that lasted for about 30 minutes, was simply unforgettable. Sairandri is sent by the queen to Keechaka’s house on a false pretext, and if you stepped back from Sairandri’s uncomfortable situation, you would appreciate the tenderness conveyed by the music and the acting.

The sophistication of the dance-theatre style comes from the fact that most of the scenes have soliloquies, and even in case of a conversation, the supporting artist maintains a silent yet participative presence. Leela was one such supporting artist, who made her unease and disgust plain in timely outbursts.

The tryst in the dance hall where Valala is lying in wait to pounce on Keechaka, ended with the gory death of the latter. One would think that the percussionists would reach a crescendo, but no, the slow unveil and the struggle were both enacted in relative silence with the chenda reflecting the last breaths of Keechaka with telling softness. The sensitive percussionists were Kottakal Ravi and Kalanilayam Kunjunni. Narendra as Valala exhibited strength, anger and energy.

‘Ravanodbhavam’ was a different cup of tea for many reasons -- it was sans music for the most part, the principal actor performed multiple roles and its main body was a reminiscence scene (Thapasattam). Kalanilayam Balakrishnan as Ravana showed his prowess as a mature actor straddling both the past and the present and as a rigorous dancer who performed with seven percussionists. It was naturally a more factual presentation, especially the details concerning Ravana’s penance.

The proud and arrogant Ravana recounts the events past that lead to his penance. In a flash, the actor becomes a doting mother Kaikasi fondling baby Ravana on her lap with affection. She sees Vaisravana go by in a pompous aerial chariot and feels bad for her own impoverished offspring. Until the chariot goes out of sight, Kaikasi keeps looking up at it with anger and jealousy and down at the baby with pity. The other interesting scene was when Ravana questions his brothers about the boons they received from Brahma.

Ravana started on an arrogant note, and covered disbelief, anger, mockery and resignation all in minutes.

The untiring percussionists were Kalanilayam Prakashan, Sadanam Devadas, Sadanam Ramakrishnan and Kalanilayam Kunjunni. The vocalists who also played the gong and the cymbals were Sadanam Sivadasan and Sadanam Jyothishbabu.