The Bhagavatham Kathakali fete in the capital city featured plays written by members of the erstwhile Travancore royal family.

A festival organised in connection with the 40th anniversary of Drisyavedi, coinciding with the silver jubilee of their Keralanaatyolsavam, focussed on the attakathas written by members of the royal family of erstwhile Travancore. Select scenes of the following six famous plays exuding the culture of Bhagavathapurana were staged in five evenings: ‘Puthanamoksham’, ‘Ambareeshacharitham’ and ‘Rugmineesvayamvaram’ by Aswathi Thirunal Thampuran (1756 – `94), ‘Rajasuyam’ and ‘Narakasuravadham’ by Karthika Thirunal Thampuran (1724 -1798) and ‘Kamsavadham’ by Kilimanur Ravi Varma Thampuran (1782-1854).

A full-fledged Kathakali performance held in traditional venues such as the naatakasala of Sree Padmanabhaswamy Temple used to have the following ritual-oriented but artistically designed preludes: Keli, Thodayam, Purappadu and Melappadam. These items are fast disappearing from the stage, since most organisers of Kathakali performances in the present-day do not have the manpower and other resources required for presenting them. Drisyavedi, however, devoted the whole forenoon of the inaugural day for staging all of them.

Thodayam is usually entrusted to junior trainees in acting. But Kalamandalam Balasubramanian, former Principal of Kerala Kalamandalam and one of the senior-most preceptor-actors, volunteered to present it and enthralled the audience with an astonishing abundance of systematic steps and agile movements. Kottakkal Madhu, supported ably by Kalamandalam Vinod, weaved dozens of delectable sangatis into the charanam ‘Mridupavana chalamalaya…’ in the Melappadam that proved scintillating on account of the skilful playing of the chenda by Kalamandalam Krishnadas and Margi Venugopal and the maddalam by Margi Rathnakaran and Kalamandalam Vinith.

Seminars on topics relating to Kathakali helped promote the critical acumen of connoisseurs.

The festival provided rasikas with opportunities to enjoy presentations of veteran artistes, including the octogenarian Madavoor Vasudevan Nair (Jarasandha), Nelliyodu Vasudevan Nambudiri (Durvvasavu), Kalamandalam Balasubramanian (Krishnan in ‘Rugminiswayamvaram’), Kottakkal Chandrasekharan (Kamsa), Thonnakkal Peethambaran (Ambareeshan), Margi Vijayakumar (Lalitha in ‘Narakasuravadham’), Kalamandalam Rajasekharan (Puthana in disguise) and Kalamandalam Soman (Narakasuran). Sincerity of dozens of junior artistes contributed significantly to the overall success of the programme.

Just as the handsome Krishna stole the heart of Rugmini, Balasubramanian, who portrayed that character, captured the hearts of the connoisseurs through his exquisite style of emotional acting and diligent maintenance of transformation in full to the character in question. Margi Vijayakumar’s delineation of Lalitha as the female demon Nakrathundi in the guise of an enchantress was superb. The character’s fascination for Jayantha, the charming prince of the heavens, its development into enchantment and its reaching the point of unfettered lust was depicted with due attention even to subtle details.

Realism and stylisation

Bhiru, the clown, has come to be the signature role of Margi Ravindran Nair. A rival to him in depicting the role appeared to emerge in the essaying of the same character by Margi Suresh in ‘Narakasuravadham’. Suresh’s acting as the elephant mahout in ‘Kamsavadham’ was excellent indeed; it reminded senior rasikas of the presentation of the same role by the legendary Kurichi Kunjan Panicker. The intermingling, in the most appropriate proportion, of realistic elements and aspects of stylisation, evident in the body language as well as spoken word employed by Ravindran Nair and Suresh met with enthusiastic appreciation of the audience. Ettumanur Kannan’s Sundarabrahmanan, Kalamandalam Shanmukhan’s Krishnan in ‘Kamsavadham’ and Kalamandalam Pradeep’s Akruran did full justice to the respective roles.

Nelliyodu, famous for dexterous handling of all characters of the thaadi (beard) category, including Sudarsanam, appeared in the role of Durvasavu, the proverbially short-tempered and arrogant Shaivite sage. The sage’s formidableness was crushed into pieces on encountering the single-minded devotion cultivated diligently by King Ambareesha, an ardent devotee of Vishnu. This episode was enacted quite convincingly by Nelliyodu and Thonnakkal Peethambaran, who donned the role of the king. The latter, however, seemed to struggle hard to present his best in the context of constraints including that of time. Nelliyodu brought to light even the subtle details of appropriately concluding the Ekadashi ritual, confining the presentation within the conventions of Kathakali.

Rajasekharan left the audience in the lurch by pressing into service a black doll to symbolise Krishna, while the actor-dancer’s left arm folded at the elbow and shielded by the head-covering cloth would have served the purpose more effectively, as is the common practice, nowadays, of presenting the scene, even when the artiste happens to be quite junior.

Vocalists who rendered the quatrains and songs included Kalanilayam Unnikrishnan, Kalamandalam Surendran, Kalamandalam Hareesh Nambuthiri, Kalamandalam Sajeevan, Kalamandalam Jayaprakash and several junior artistes.

The teams of accompanists were equally impressive: Kurur Vasudevan Nambuthiri, Kalamandalam Narayanan Varanasi, Kalamandalam Krishnadas, Margi Venugopal and a number of young players handled the chenda; Kalamandalam Harikumar, Margi Rathnakaran, Kalamandalam Venukuttan, Margi Ravindran, Sreekanteswaram Mohanachandran assisted by several up-and-coming artistes played the maddalam.

R.L.V. Somadasan, the doyen among the make-up-cum costume artists, deserves accolades.