If the existential pangs of Kathakali’s first non-Hindu artist deserve depiction on stage, the Delhiite crew for the Malayalam play merits bigger applause for its effort.

Towards the end of the play where a radio news bulletin announces his end in a car accident, the protagonist reappears in a post-death scene and calmly tells the audience, “Iythraye ulloo” (Hm…that is all about it).

That statement has a quality much more than brevity to it. It best sums up the stoic spirit of Kalamandalam Hyderali. To the extent of bordering on gallows humour. After all, the Kathakali musician would have been relieved that curtains had rung down on his life which presented him with episodes of humiliation for what is ideally a distinction: the first non-Hindu artiste in a four-century-old dance-drama.

True, Hyderali (1946-2006) did simultaneously acquire his share of celebrity status as an innovative classicist, but then stories of struggles — professional and personal — have a bigger potential to appeal than those of eventual glory. Presumably that is why a debut drama profiling the cult vocalist chooses to throw light on his travails, and slot him as an out-and-out tragic hero.

Nonetheless, “Enthiha Man Maanase” is not predominantly pathos-ridden, even as the title is an opening extract from a famous Kathakali song delving into Karna’s woes. The two-hour production in Malayalam by Delhi-based Janasamskriti theatre group was premiered under the aegis of Kala Keralam at Karthyayani Auditorium recently.

Directed by theatre enthusiasts M.V. Santhosh and Ajith G Maniyan based on the script of Dr Samkutty Pattomkary, also a Malayali based in the Capital, the play has a mammoth crew totalling 64 — 55 of them actors, including children. Opting for a chronological narrative, it essays the occasionally glad but largely grim instances from the life of the musician for whom the primarily Hindu ethos of Kathakali poses reasons for a chain of insults. They emerge more from individual malice than from societal conditions.

The play, thus, is basically about the neither-there-nor-here existence of Hyderali. For, a Muslim singing for Hindu mythological characters was not taken particularly pleasingly by his community in Kerala where Kathakali grew to become a world-class theatre art. The poignancy quotient scales further with a starker reality: the musician often gets ‘outsider’ treatment from within the art circuit. A painful instance is depicted in the latter half of the play where Hyderali has to sing from outside a temple even as the Kathakali show takes place inside its premises. Regional custom denied entry to a non-Hindu in a Travancore shrine, forcing the organisers to dismantle a part of the compound wall and erect an extended stage to ensure that the lead musician technically stood outside the precincts.

Indications to this late-1970s ‘Haripad incident’ had come for Hyderali during his student days in Kalamandalam — not far from his poverty-ridden household in central Kerala. A quirk of fate took the boy (who finished first in a local-level light-music competition as an 11-year-old but had no idea about Kathakali whatsoever) to the premier performing arts institute, only to trigger instances of discrimination.

All the same, some fellow students and tutors stood by him. Dignified as he always was, the musician is shown in four stages of his life — from a little boy in half trousers fooling around his father’s teashop business that would never flourish, to a greying philosopher-temper man who doubles up as the narrator to paint the big picture.

The change of scenes is engineered with the acting team smartly shuffling property on the near-dark stage. Quite a few of them proved to be good at singing — one quality that overall lent Hyderali his place in the history of Kathakali.