Different teaching traditions are being showcased at Kalakshetra. Some vignettes…

Envisioned by Guru Sadanam Balakrishnan and former director Leela Samson, Kalakshetra’s unique Kathakali Festival, ‘Bhava Bhavanam,’ is in its fifth consecutive year. This year the festival, titled ‘Gurustvam,’ was themed on the many teaching traditions of Kathakali.

The morning sessions had a lecture-demonstration by the respective institution, followed by an Upanyasam by Sri Sundarkumar on the story that would be performed in the evening.

Kalakshetra Style - Kalladikkodan Shailee

With Smt Rukmini Devi, visionary-founder of Kalakshetra, inviting Kathakali artists from the Kalladikodan Sampradayam - Gurus Ambu Panicker and Chandu Panicker and Adukkaadakkan Krishnan Nair from North Malabar - as faculty, the style took root here. The Kalladikkodan Shailee was created by Chathu Panicker Aasaan and gives equal importance to the three aspects of nritta, nrithya and natya. The repertoire consists of the Kottayam Kathas such as Kalyanasougandhikam, Bhagavatham, Kalakeyavadham and Kirmeeravadham. Another feature is that the sringara padams are sung in a slower tempo, to allow room for the delicacy of romance. The concept of a second singer was also introduced by Chathu Aasaan.

Celebrated Kathakali artists trained by the luminaries in Kalakshetra including Rukmini Devi, such as Natyaacharyas V.P. Dhananjayan, Professor A. Janardhanan, Professor C.K. Balagopalan and Sadanam Balakrishnan, in the presence of the senior-most Natyaacharya K. P. Kunhiraman, presented signature pieces of the Kalladikkodan school representing sringara, veera and hasya rasas in their lecture-demonstration.

Sans the elaborate costume and make up, the artists’ exquisite craftsmanship could be seen up close. The organic development of emotions from love to dejection and finally fury in the Keechaka Vadham excerpt with Keechaka (Prof Janardhan) and Sairandri (Prof Balagopalan) was a treat. Keechaka’s enthusiasm and detailing in readying a room for the lovers in the famous Khambodi sringara padam, ‘Harinaakshi’ and Sairandri’s alternating fear, indignation and revulsion were some of the highlights.

Prof. Janardhanan as the rustic carpenter Kanaka, sent to build a tunnel to enable the Pandavas escape from the wax palace and seal the opening with a log of wood, proved again his mastery in drama. His strength is his patience, as he detailed every step of the carpenter’s thought process, from the sharpening of the chisel to choosing the right tree to fell all the while chewing paan and spitting it out repeatedly. The sound effects provided by the chenda (Sadanam Ramakrishnan) magnified every movement to its comic best. This was a free-flow performance without lyrics, taken from the Bhagavatham.

The stillness and technique in Sadanam Balakrishnan’s ‘Sala-j-joham’ (Sankarabharanam) from Kaalakeya Vadham as he portrayed Arjuna being praised by Indra’s charioteer for his valour, speech, character, walk, et al, could only evoke awe in the rasika. This padam is physically exacting as the stiffness and implied strength in Veera rasa has to be maintained throughout. This padam is famous in the Kalladikkodan Shailee and was a signature piece for Chandu Panicker Aasaan. On one occasion, he was supposedly stung by a bee on the cheek while posing as the brave Arjuna, and without flinching he continued in the same posture for more than twenty minutes!

The artists on Monday were supported by skilful musicians: Kalamandalam Subramanian and Sadanam Sivadasan (vocal) and Sadanam Devadas (maddalam).

The Best Group

Kalakshetra’s ‘Santhanagopalam’ was a not-to-miss opportunity as the best from the institution were on stage together. For four hours time stood still as the engrossing story of the pathetic Brahmin (Prof. Janardhanan) who had lost nine children at birth and the compassionate but egoistic Arjuna (Sadanam Balakrishnan) who offered to help him, was played out with artistic restraint and finesse.

Arjuna visits Krishna (Hari Padman) in Dwaraka. Their meeting portrayed in the padams ‘Sriman sakhe vijaya’ (Saveri) and ‘Nadha bhaval charana’ (Devagandhari) was full of affection and compassion that came through in the sublime music, especially the Devagandhari piece, and the involved role-play.

While Balakrishnan’s technique and subtlety is inspiring, Hari Padman must also be recognised as Kalakshetra’s next-gen find for Kathakali. He is maturing as a Kathakali artist, and to share stage space with Guru Balakrishnan is an achievement for both guru and sishya.

The brahmin appears with the body of his dead newborn (‘Aha karomi kim iha’, Dukha Gandharam) and in his grief insults Krishna blaming the Raja dosha for his problems and mocking him for being too busy with his sixteen thousand wives. Krishna is unmoved, but Arjuna reacts to the brahmin’s grief and promises to save his next baby.

The conversation between the two masters was the highpoint of the show. The brahmin’s immediate response is sarcastic and cynical, but once convinced that Arjuna meant to honour his promise, his demeanour changes. He praises Arjuna’s heroic deeds and tries to extract promises from him. This sequence used only percussion, and is the improvisational part of the play. The banter between the characters regarding the vows to be made at Yudishtira’s feet, Krishna’s feet and finally on the brahmin’s sacred thread (though there is a controversy regarding its religious permissibility, it exists in the Kathakali sampradaya), carried a sense of spontaneity and humour, proof of the artistic abilities of the performers.

The dancer-actors’ subtleties go often unnoticed, as the exaggerated costume and make up in Kathakali is misleading. The expressions in the stylised Natyadharmi tradition can only be suggestive, and Kathakali has the added requirement of the use of cheek and eye muscles to emote. So the bhava portrayed is never loud, and ever restrained.

Arjuna’s pride as he boasts of his abilities to the Brahmin was seen in small, understated gestures; Prof. Balagopal carried the same subtlety as the long-suffering brahmin’s wife, who speaks of accepting fate, however cruel, in ‘Vidhi maatham’ (Anandabhairavi). She is calm even when she has good news to relate, as when she becomes pregnant again, and bears the discomfort stoically.

Despite Arjuna’s best efforts, the newborn disappears. The Brahmin is enraged and hurls insults at him (‘Mooda athi prowdamam,’ Bilahari) and Arjuna’s ego takes a beating. He decides to jump into the fire, when Krishna stops him with an endearing, ‘Ma kuru sahasam’ (Mohanam). There is a happy ending when the ten boys are revealed in Vaikunta with Vishnu, Lakshmi and Bhuma Devi (‘Lakshmi jane jaya’, Khambodi). This was a beautiful scene that somehow caught the celestial effect with simple props and excellent music.

The same band of experienced musicians, with Kalamandalam Subramanian and Sadanam Sivadasan (vocal), Sadanam Devadas (maddalam) and Sadanam Ramakrishnan (chenda), gave a faultless performance. Earlier budding Kathakali dancers from Kalakshetra presented their discipline and training in the ragamalika Purappadu, ‘Rama Ravi kula Soma’ with perfectly coordinated movements and formations.