The romance of Nala and Damayanthi took centre stage on Day 2 of the Kalakshetra festival
Day Two and Three of ‘Nalacharitham,’ which was presented at ‘Bhava Bhavanam,’ Kalakshetra Foundation’s annual Kathakali festival, belonged to Nala and his romance with Damayanthi.
Onnaam Divasam- Part II
In a departure from the customary practice in which the invocatory purappadu (pure dance sequence) is performed by the hero and his consort, Rama, Krishna or the Pancha Pandavas, it was performed by four promising Kathakali artists from Kalakshetra -- Hari Padman, Terrance, Sreenath and Sibi Sudarshan (Indra, Yama, Varuna and Agni). As the colourful curtain was lowered half-way, the sequence commenced with eye movements, just the side to side movement (pralokita) of the pupils, in pin-drop silence. The pupils then made semi-circular arcs, this time with the dancers gently swaying from side to side, all in perfect unison. It was such a beautiful sight, the delicacy of movement in the Kathakali style which is often lost within the folds of elaborate costume and waves of emotions.
The discipline in Kathakali training that governs major and minor limbs and other body parts including the facial muscles and fingers is also not always obvious, unless you are paying close attention. The Kalakshetra dancers, while maintaining a stiff elbow position with the foot balanced on the outer part, were light on their feet as they executed deep-seated postures and leaps with fluidity. The evening otherwise belonged to Nala’s noble characterisation, portrayed deftly by Kalamandalam Balasubramanian. Nala is shocked when he is instructed by the four gods to request Damayanthi to marry one of them. He reluctantly agrees, and is thereafter torn between his love for her and his duty as a messenger.
A very dignified Damayanthi (Kalamandalam Shanmukhan) who is unaware of Nala’s identity, refuses to entertain the devas’ proposals in ‘Pati Devatamaar’ (Bhairavi). Nala listens to these words with rising joy, but has to hide it behind the studied aggression, and this the actor did so with easy conviction.
Vocalists Kalanilayam Unnikrishnan and Sadanam Sivadasan laid the foundation for the emotional graphs of the actors; their ‘Hari Prabhukkalai’ padam (Ranjani) in the Swayamvara scene, when Damayanthi laments the fact that the gods are playing with her when they sport the same face as Nala, was easily their most soulful. The percussionists, Sadanam Ramakrishnan (chenda, idakka) and Sadanam Devadas (maddalam), were equally involved with the dramatisation.
This entire segment is usually given the go-by in Nalacharitham presentations, so it was a special occasion for rasikas.
If in a five-hour presentation, a romantic conversation between newlyweds is allotted one and a half hours, it underlines the importance of sringara rasa and poetry vis-à-vis events such as the mischief-making by the evil Kali, the game of dice and Nala and Damayanthi’s banishment to the forest. This is how the most famous segment of Nalacharitham is structured.
The play opened to a slow Todi padam, ‘Kuvalaya Vilochane’ in which Nala (Kottakkal Chandrasekhar Warrier) tries to woo his newly-wedded wife, Damayanthi (Kottakkal Vasudevan Kundalayar). It lasted a good 40 forty minutes with little but Nala’s sweet words and Damayanthi’s occasional responses and some still moments. Yet it was so full of mood and magic; it is purportedly one of Kathakali’s most famous pieces. The slow pace of the music and the inspired singing by vocalists Kottakkal Narayanan and Vengari Narayanan added to the poetry of romance.
It was interesting to witness the study of human emotions inherent in the 18th century script -- the new bride though willing, takes her time to warm up to her husband until he wins her over with gentle persuasion. Nala’s soliloquy, ‘Orunaalum Nirupitha Malle’ (Gowlipantu) after he loses the kingdom and the piece of cloth that covered him was another instance that reminded one of the impermanence of life, as man stoically grapples with its highs and lows. The pathos was brought out in the beautiful rendering.
Accomplished artist Chandrasekhar Warrier ’s acting uses has a remarkable eye-movement technique in his expression of emotions. Sample this: to express his love and passion towards Damayanthi, he would roll his eyes (alokita) some 40-50 times and make Damayanthi blush in embarrassment! His later portrayal of a Nala who becomes a bit imbalanced when the evil spirit enters him, was also through his eyes – they glazed over with madness every now and then.
Despite the limitations of the ‘special red beard’ make-up, Kali (Kalamandalam Ramachandranunnithan), the evil spirit, was expressive and even entertaining during his conversation with Indra (Sadanam Manikandan). Angry over the news of Damayanthi’s marriage, he mocks at Indra’s eye-covered body and ridicules him for allowing a mere ‘manushya puzhu’ (human worm) to marry the beautiful princess. Kali decides to break the marriage and settles atop a tree in Nala’s kingdom to spot any slip-ups in character that he can take advantage of. From that vantage point, he describes all he sees -- Brahmins performing yagas, eating well, sleeping, a man being punished for a wrongdoing, et al. Every tableau was glazed with humour, as Kali looks for that one mistake.
Percussionists Kottakal Prasad and Kalamandalam Balasundaran (chenda), and Kottakkal Ravi and Kalamandalam Rajunarayana (maddalam) along with Sadanam Ramakrishna (Idakka) and Sadanam Jothishbabu (vocal) kept the tenor of the play at a high throughout.