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Following one's own art

Kathakali isn't exactly karaoke and there are still a few brave souls coming together to keep this difficult art alive.

Sivaraman applying chutti to Keshavan Namboothiri while Kalamandalam Gopalakrishnan puts on his make-up for the Hanuman character.

IN THESE times, when everything is available at the push of a button or the click of a mouse, one commodity is hard to find: commitment, especially to the arts even in the face of relative anonymity. It was humbling to talk to the clutch of Kathakali artistes who came to town last week under the aegis of the Natya Vedi to perform Kalyanasougandhikam, an episode from the Mahabharata.

Kathakali, everyone knows, is a dance rich in complexities that requires a high degree connoisseurship to fully appreciate it. Sadly, satellite television and its attendant horrors have ensured that the average brain shuts itself down when faced with arduous assignments that require full concentration and knowledge of one's cultural past.

Kalamandalam Gopalakrishnan, the troupe's asan who played Hanuman, calmly accepts the fading appeal of his art in his native Kerala. This Assistant Professor in Kathakali Education at Kalamandalam, whose specialty is pacha (Bheema, Arjuna, Krishna, and Nala) and kathi (Kichaka, Narakasura, Duryodhana, and Ravana), and vellathadi (Hanuman) characters, has been performing for over three decades. He's pretty stoic about the situation. "If there aren't enough audiences, the organisers tell us to keep it to one-and-a-half to two hours," he laughs, probably recalling the times when the art used to be performed all night long. He likes performing abroad because "there they are very meticulous about sticking to the prescribed time".

In fact, he has a lot of foreigners as students. Most are mature dancers who want to add a new dimension to their art. He has no problems with that because they are truly dedicated. "If they come on their own, they stay on for three months at a time and then come back later. Those on scholarships stay longer."

"One should be prepared to do any vesham. One can't insist that one will do only this or only that. One should be even prepared to lie down in a coffin!" he deadpans, "Don't cinema people do it?"

Rajani Pradeep Menon.

Isn't it disheartening that one can't get to perform as much as one would like to? His reply is devastating. "Do coolies get work everyday? Whenever work comes, they do it."

Kalamandalam Keshavan Namboothiri, who played Bheema and who was the first to start his make-up after meditation and prayers, is an expert in minukku characters, though he is at ease with pacha, kathi, and thadi too. After an hour or so, he lies down and lets make-up expert Sivaraman (who has now discarded his shirt and trousers to the traditional mundu) take over. Sivaraman starts applying the chutti, the white shield that frames the face. It will be four hours by the time Namboothiri is done.

The artistes, in full regalia, at the performance. Photos: K. Gopinathan and K. Bhagya Prakash

Panchali's character is being essayed by Rajani Pradeep Menon, the moving force behind Natya Vedi. Trained as a software engineer, this young mother's asans were both Gopalakrishnan and Namboothiri. Her parents were Kathakali aficionados and initiated both their girls into the art. It's been eight years since Rajani performed seriously. Understandably, she is nervous. She asks her senior asan about certain moves. "If you rehearse any more, you'll ruin it all," he says sharply. "Simply go ahead and perform." Even as Rajani talks, her husband is running around, taking care of last-minute details, getting oil for the lamp, coconut oil for the make-up, and so on. Rajani says she is moved by the plight Kathakali artistes who are not so well off, and who have nothing else to fall back on. A number of them have no formal education. Natya Vedi was formed with the twin objectives of making Kathakali accessible to the common man and to help the artistes themselves. The evening's performance, for example, was to be interactive, with a lecdem by Kalamandalam Pradeep.

Pradeep himself is busy preparing the koppu, helping his colleague Balakrishnan fold the highly starched kora cloth pieces artistically. He lives and works in Palakkad district. He has a few students, one of whom is an eight-year-old girl with great potential. "She had her arangettam at six," he beams.

At this juncture, Namboothiri good-naturedly points out that the older of his two girls had shown interest in Kathakali till she saw Pradeep as Bhadrakali. Scared out of her wits, she is now learning music!

Balakrishnan's children too have nothing to do with the art. "Will a farmer's children stick to farming today?" he asks gently.

"We no longer have love for our children. We send them to school before they turn three to learn English and wear shoes. Earlier, they were breast-fed till they were five."

I turn to Namboothiri, but he has gone off to sleep even as Sivaraman is painstakingly preparing the chutti.

The musicians, one of whom is an unemployed maths teacher and another a B.Pharm graduate, are also sprawled on the bare floor, recharging their batteries for the performance that is a couple of hours away...

Natya Vedi can be contacted on 51292561 or 9845447669 or


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