Improvisation and experimentation were the highlights of a Kathakali fete at Cherpulassery.

Cherpulassery, a village near Ottappalam in Palakkad, has always prided itself for its rich cultural legacy and its promotion of classical art forms, especially Kathakali, which is said to have originated in the neighbouring village of Vellinezhi. Kathakali enthusiasts of Cherpulassery are sticklers for tradition and rarely, if ever, choose to stage plays in anything other than the traditional format. Perhaps that’s why new plays, experimental acts, and/or abridged versions of popular Kathakali plays are almost never staged in the village. That’s why it came as a surprise to rasikas when the annual festival of Puthanalkkal temple here featured performances of select excerpts from Unnayi Warrier’s Nalacharitham and the rarely staged Rajasooyam, for both of which there was improvisation and experimentation galore. Moreover, it was the last portion of part two and the beginning of part three of Nalacharitham that was performed, which in itself was rather unusual.

Interestingly, the performance of Nalacharitam began with Nala and Damayanthi in the forest after the former is exiled rather than the scene where Nala romances Damayanthi. Following this, the famous padam ‘Oru nalum niroopitham alle...’ was performed, leading to the part where Nala deserts his wife. In the next scene Damayanthi is attacked by a snake and a hunter comes to her rescue. The hunter makes a pass at Damayanthi but she curses him and he is reduced to ash. The last and third scene performed featured Nala bemoaning his destiny. Often this part is left out of Kathakali performances due to its length.

Peesappalli Rajeevan, a gifted artiste known for his emoting skills, performed the lead role of Nala. Rajeevan choose to perform the padam ‘Lokapalanmare’ with a more positive outlook on the situation and the emotion of the character. His gestures and expressions perfectly matched the character. His manodharma attam was truly spectacular as he poetically described the ardour of Nala and Damayanthi using references from Rabindranath Tagore’s Geetanjali. Sadanam Bhasi was at his usual best while essaying the hunter. His performance featured quite a number of kalasams and manodharma attams. Haripriya Nambudiri portrayed Damayanthi with ease, the grief and fear of a deserted wife coming through in her acting.

Music was the real star of the evening with Kottakkal Madhu and Nedumpally Rammohan excelling themselves on the vocals. Sadanam Ramakrishnan and Kalamandalam Venu were the percussionists.

‘Vadakkan Rajasooyam’ was the play performed the next day. Once upon a time, this play was popular on Kathakali stages in central Kerala. These days it has ceased to be performed because it requires quite a number of actors (at least 10) and more or less the same number of percussionists. It tells the story of Dharmaputhra, King of Hasthinapura, and his decision to enlarge his kingdom through a Rajasooya yajna, much to the consternation of the Pandavas and the neighbouring kingdoms. In this three-and-a-half hour play, Jarasandha (Chuvanna thadi vesham), the King of Magadha, who is eventually killed by Bheema, and Sisupala (Kathi vesham), King of Chedi and Jarasandha’s friend, are the main characters. Both the characters give ample scope for artistes to display their skills in manodharma. Kottakkal Devadas stole the show as Jarasandha, storming across the stage, unparalleled in commitment and energy. Kalamandalam Soman, another powerful artiste, enacted the role of Sisupala with élan. Although Soman seemed a tad nervous at the beginning, he came into his own as the tempo increased. His attams were reminiscent of his guru Kalamandalam Ramankutti Nair, who was an expert in the role.

Percussion played a main role in the success of the play. Kalamandalam Balasundar, Kalamandalam Venumohan and Kalamandalam Ravisanker on the chenda and Cherpulassery Hariharan and Sudheesh on the maddalam were marvellous. Kalamandalam Mohanakrishnan and Sadanam Jyothisbabu were the singers.