‘Narakasuravadham’ with ninam was enacted in Palakkad by an all-female cast.

For generations, women performers were excluded from the Kathakali stage and female roles were enacted by male artistes. The mid-1940s saw some tremendous changes in the field when several women began training in the art form. Kattassery Sarojini Amma and Chelanat Subhadra were pioneers who performed on many a stage, shining in challenging female roles such as Lalitha in ‘Narakasuravadham’ and ‘Kirmeervadham’ and Damayanthi in ‘Nalacharitham’. However, they could not pursue their careers for long on account of family responsibilities and societal pressure. Then in the 1970s, once again female artistes started coming into the spotlight. A ‘Ladies Kathakali troupe’ was set up at Tripunithura. The artistes (vesham and vocal) of the troupe started doing all the major roles in Kathakali with due importance to the chitta (style). There were plenty of artistes to perform Pacha, Kathi and Minukku roles in the troupe, but there were only a few who could handle Chuvannathadi and Kari veshams such as Dussana and Nakrathundi that require a lot of stamina. Of the latter, Kottarakka Ganga and Kottakkal Jayasree stood out. Both Ganga and Jayasree are still active in the field, with Jayasree shifting to Minukku roles.

The time is now ripe for another troupe on similar lines and a ‘new generation’ women’s Kathakali troupe was established a couple of years ago at Kallekulangara, near Palakkad, under the tutelage of Kalamandalam Venkitaraman. Recently, this troupe performed ‘Narakasuravadham’ with ‘ninam’. The highlight of this performance was, obviously, the ninam, not least because, for perhaps the first time in the history of Kathakali, it was an all-female act.

Saranya Premdas, a college student and a disciple of Venkitaraman, beautifully enacted this role. Her performance as Nakrathundi was exceptional. Her solo performance in the beginning of the act, which narrates Nakrathundi getting ready to meet Jayantha, was interesting. Following this, the beautiful Lalitha (Nakrathundi in disguise) makes her entry, in an attempt to woo Jayantha, son of Indra, Lord of the heavens.

Up-and-coming artiste Gana Murali as Lalitha performed the sari dance with candour. However, she lost control of the character in the padam ‘Vrithra vairy Nandana…’ Although the performance was in ‘Randam kalam’ (usually such padams are performed in Onnam kalam, the slowest of tempos), lack of proper interpretation of the character affected the performance. Gana redeemed herself in the last padam ‘Enanga Samavadana, ennu nin viraham...’ with spectacular eye expressions.

Arya Parapoor performed the role of Narakasura with grace and unflagging energy throughout the concert. Her presentation of the pathinja padam ‘Balikamar…’ was a fine example of her skills as an artiste. She was at her best in the padappurappad and in Narakasura’s fight with Indra. The ninam was performed towards the end of the performance and began with Nakrathundi’s wails as she tells her brother Narakasura of her mutilation at the hands of Jayantha. The mutilated Nakrathundi made a fearsome entry, weaving her way through the audience; the sense of fear heightened by the dim glow of torches. This character is called ninam and usually this role is donned by male performers. Saranya was the master of the game and gave a power-packed performance as she expressed Nakrathundi’s grief.

Amritha Suresh (Jayantha), Keerthi Unnikrishnan (Narakasurapatni) and Chandni (Indra) were the other artistes. Evocative music and good percussion supported the acts. Sadanam Sivadas and Sadanam Jyothish Babu sang the padam with appropriate and choice ragas. Sadanam Ramakrishnan and Sadanam Jithin on the chenda and maddalam artiste Sadanam Devadas also performed well.