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Epic story in two styles

The all-night performances of Kathakali and Koothu organised by the Alliance Francaise and the Magic Lantern provided a contrast in approaches. KAUSALYA SANTHANAM writes...

Scene from Vali Vadham by Kerala Kalamandalam.

ONE THEME. Two performances in different styles. The result was a feast of music, dance and dialogue for those gathered at the Alliance Francaise on January 9 and 10 when interesting interpretations of ``Bali/Vali Vadhom/Vadham" were held as all night performances of Kathakali and Koothu. Seated on the steps of the amphitheatre under the waving palms, the audience felt as though Kerala or Purisai had come to Chennai as the Kerala Kalamandalam and the Purisai Kannapppa Thambiran Parambarai Theru-k-koothu Manram enacted their marathon productions from 10 p.m. to 5 a.m. The show had been organised by the AF and the Magic Lantern. The epic battles were played out against the milk white backdrop of the colonial style building as the audience watched enrapt. Vali Vadham, one of the most moving episodes of the Ramayana, has led to innumerable treatises on right and wrong and about action and retribution. Was Rama right in killing Vali and in the manner of slaying? How much did Vali's actions in coveting his younger brother Sugriva's wife result in his meeting his end?

The approaches of the two troupes to the narration of the story and its progress showed the idioms they belonged to. They offered a contrast between the classical and the folk, between a structured idiom where every quiver of the eyebrow and every gesture is clearly defined on the one hand and the flexibility of a rustic form on the other. The incidents chosen for emphasis, the progress of the story and the humour were special to the style. The commonalities were the cloth screen which evoked suspense and the tradition of male artistes enacting the female roles.

The Kerala Kalamandalam located on the banks of the Bharathapuzha in Thrissur district has played a leading role in the revival of Kathakali, under the leadership of Vallathol Narayana Menon. Outstanding artistes have emerged from this institution and many in Chennai were glad of an opportunity to witness a production by this organisation that has taken the classical dance theatre to countries around the world. As the beautiful brass lamp burned in front of the stage and the sound of the chenda and other percussion instruments picked up, the element of anticipation was built up to a crescendo. The strong singing reverberated across the silence of the night. The sound was too loud causing many, including the westerners (intently watched the drama more often behind the video camera lens than directly) to cup their ears. Lower decibels of sound to suit an urban proscenium performance would have made the performance more pleasant.

The take off point was of Ravana's wife Mandodari pleading with her husband not to take any hasty action against Rama for the disfigurement of Surpanakha. The not to be appeased Ravana summons Mareecha and orders him to transform into a golden deer to entice Sita. When Mareecha tries to bring home the truth of Rama's divine nature to his nephew, he meets with an outburst of such demoniac anger that he subsides into silence. Mareecha's woebegone face and downcast looks were an eloquent and telling contrast to Ravana's uncontrollable rage. Sita beseeching Rama to obtain the deer, Mareecha's cry that forces Sita to send Lakshmana to his side, Ravana's transformation into a sanyasi, his abduction of Sita and the killing of Jatayu, Rama's meeting with Hanuman and Sugriva... the drama unfolded into the early hours as the audience, some with shawls wrapped around their shoulders watched. The painted faces of the various epic characters adhering strictly to the rules of the Kathakali grammar, the distinctly coloured beards — red for Sugriva, white for Hanuman and black for Mareecha — and the glittering costumes made for a riot of colour. The performer who stole the thunder was Ravana with his snorts of anger and his contempt for less powerful beings though sometimes vice seemed to overshadow virtue by being portrayed so charismatically, especially in the killing of Jatayu.

Theru-k-koothu ... simple in form.

Rooted in tradition

The Theru-k-koothu performance the following night was in contrast simple in its presentation and breathed the local folk idiom. The Kattiyakaran in his gaudy dress of imitation brocade and his humour - topical, enjoyable but often coarse — reflected the tradition of a style rooted in the soil and that sees its fifth generation practitioner in Kannappa Sambandam. The Theru-k-koothu manram at Purisai, 120 km from Chennai, has distinguished itself in adapting plays to suit the modern theatre as in their Koothu version of Gabriel Marcia Marquez' ``The Old Man with Huge Wings." The troupe has travelled widely thanks to encouragement and patronage from local groups and the government.

Theru -k-koothu which is rich in its ritual aspects has themes drawn usually from the Mahabharata. These are generally staged in the summer months at the local temple of the Mother Goddess. It is a simple style that is accompanied by simple instruments such as the harmonium, mridangam, cymbals and mukha veena.

The same story began in a different manner with the introduction of the characters of Vali and Sugreeva by the Kattiyakaran, the sutradhar. The worship of one of the Koothu artistes, transformed though the aid of a turban cloth into Ganesa, as usual evoked wonderment for its ingenuity. The Kattiyakaran's comments on the lineage of Vali and Sugriva and their angry reactions evoked humour as also the antics of the two lieutenants of Hanuman who were thrown bits of coconut and bananas by members of the troupe from the lawns resulting in a great deal of monkey-play.

The Koothu was enjoyable but one has heard better singing in a Koothu performance. The lament of Vali's wife was shrill and off-key. But the simple rhythm of the music had the audience, including those from the West, tapping their toes revealing the way art overcomes all barriers especially if it is spontaneous and springs from the devotive and daily life of the people.

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