Sadanam Balakrishnan on a life dedicated to Kathakali

Sadanam Balakrishnan’s presentation of Radha Madhavam not long back at the Konarak Festival in Odhisa was path breaking, because it was perhaps the first time that Radha was portrayed in a Kathakali dance drama.

In an interview, the Sangeet Natak Akademi Award recipient and former principal, International Centre for Kathakali, New Delhi, takes up a few questions on the production as well as his other trajectories. Excerpts:

You brought in the character of Radha into a Kathakali drama. Why is she a rarity in a Kathakali production?

Malayalam literature is born of Manipravalam, which is a mixture of Sanskrit and Tamil; the word ‘Manipravalam’ means ruby and coral.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, this was a very popular language among writers and poets. It was during this time that Kathakali was reaching its peak. Much of traditional Kathakali literature of the time bordered on obscenity though, which was perhaps why many writers did not want to bring in the character of Radha the great bhakta.

Your production was on madhura bhakti. What prompted you to focus on it?

I felt some confusion about sringara (romantic love) and madhura bhakti sringara (devotional love).  I think the attraction of the gopis towards Shri Krishna is the best example of madhura bhakti.

Normal sringara and normal bhakti cannot be interpreted as madhura bhakti.

Can Radha exist without Krishna?

Radha and Krishna are the eternal parents of the universe. In Dasama skanda (10th canto) of Srimad Bhagavat Purana, Radha and the gopis are represented as Jeevatma and Sri Krishna as Paramatma. Without Jeevatma, Paramatma also becomes invisible. Both are omnipresent according to me.

Take us back to the reason you chose to learn Kathakali.

It was by accident or incident. I was selected to participate in the school anniversary and agreed to learn dance, and the dance was Kathakali. After a few days of classes, my interest in it developed and I enjoyed the first performance thoroughly. After this, I left school and joined Gandhi Seva Sadan Kathakali Academy in Kerala.

Who do you think have contributed most to Kathakali?

Padma Shri Keezhupadam Kumaran Nair Asan is the person I admire and respect the most because of his devotion and love for the art form and for the students. He has the capacity to bring out the best even if a student is not so talented. As a performer, he successfully takes the audience to the highest level of aesthetic enjoyment. He will not compromise with anything to popularise Kathakali. Padma Shri Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair Asan was the best performer ever seen in Kathakali. Any character he portrayed was highly appreciated. Padma Shri Vazhenkata Kunju Nair Asan is another person I admire because of his serious approach to the art, both as a performer and as a teacher. He had a deep understanding about the mood of the characters and about the inner conflict that exists in the human mind.

You have worked on the dramas of Shakespeare too. Did you face difficulty adapting them in Kathakali?

One big difficulty is to fit the Shakespearian characters in the traditional Kathakali plays and to adapt the makeup and costume of Kathakali without compromising with the values of both Kathakali and Shakespeare’s plays. Another is to make the professional artistes of Kathakali understand and involve themselves with the characters of Shakespeare they are portraying. The characters of Shakespeare are totally different from the characters usually portrayed in Kathakali.

With which of Shakespeare’s protagonists were you most comfortable?

I presented only two Shakespeare plays, “Othello” and “Macbeth”. I felt most comfortable with Othello, the character, as he is powerful and brave in the beginning, but his innocence and thoughtless trust towards Iago drives him to confusion which makes him a tragic hero. His gradual transformation from a noble hero to a cruel murderer is very touching and dramatic.

What is your next production?

I am not sure about it. However, I have started work on Euripides’ tragedy “Helen” which was staged in Athens in the year 412 B.C.

Do you make an effort to interest the younger generation in Kathakali?

Through various institutions like Spic Macay, CCRT, ICCR, I do Kathakali appreciation courses to help students understand, love and enjoy Kathakali performances.