Kalamandalam Gopi's Arjuna and Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair's Ravana were lessons in the stagecraft of the art form.

These plays demand ... discipline in body language, rhythmic exactitude, refinement and devotion on the part of the performers.

Contradictions abound in the form and content of Kathakali. While the poetically profound `Nalacharitam' of Unnai Warrier has always remained a challenge to the visual grammar of our dance-drama tradition, plays such as `Subhadraharanam' and `Baalivijayam,' although replete with cliché-ridden images, have time and again proved to be popular. The staging of these plays demands a high degree of discipline in body language, rhythmic exactitude, refinement and devotion on the part of the performers.

Classicism of Kathakali

In short, the classicism of Kathakali is more easily discernible in the formation and functions of characters such as Arjuna and Ravana who occupy pivotal roles in the key plays. Vedika, a Thrissur-based cultural organisation, presented `Subhadraharanam' and `Balivijayam' at Tagore Centenary Hall. Vedika has already brought out a complete set of DVDs of the plays of Kottayath Thampuran and several others, with top-ranking artistes donning the lead roles. K. B. Raj Anand succinctly introduced the storyline and context of the play, `Subhadraharanam,' to an attentive audience following which the thespian Kalamandalam Gopi appeared as Arjuna. The gamut of expressions that flit across his face as Subhadra garlands Arjuna was a sight to behold. Arjuna watches with wonder as many celestial beings arrive to witness the marriage. The sight of his father Lord Indra initially makes him jubilant. But the next moment, he feels ashamed of his cowardly acts. Similarly, he feels humbled by the presence of Krishna who had fallen at his feet when Arjuna had first reached Dwaraka in the guise of a sage to woo Subhadra. The padam, `Kashatam njan kapatam kondu,' is laden with guilt, anguish and self-derision. In the next scene, Gopi as Arjuna does a fastidious depiction of the eminent sringarapadam `Kanjadalalochane' addressing Subhadra. This is the one and only romantic sequence in Kathakali set in Chemba tala. The triangular compactness of aharya, angika and satwika abhinayas touch rare peaks of excellence as Gopi traverses the contours of rathibhava. An observant student of `Subhadraharanam' would marvel at the indepth visual sensitivity and rhythmic perfection of its composer Manthredath Nambudiripad. In an art form that is filled with larger-than-life heroes, Ravana is another complex character that has been donned by some great maestros. For instance, the myriad Ravanas in Kathakali are synonymous with Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair. His Ravana in `Baalivijayam' has always been a rage.

Valour and stateliness

Defying his age, Ramankutty Nair portrayed the valour and stateliness of Ravana before Narada as the sage descends from heaven, singing praises of the king and playing the veena. As Narada, Kalamandalam Kesavan Nambudiri was at his best. While the lines extolling Ravana as Kailasodharaka boosts Ravana's ego, he feels ashamed when he is referred to as the brother of Kumbhakarna. As the scene progressed, Ramankutty Nair, as Ravana, gave a sterling performance of the structured improvisations of Kailasodharanam and Parvathiviraham. While the former proclaims the prowess of Ravana as an invincible demon-king, the latter is ultimately a pointer to his ego. The moment he contemptuously refuses to accept a boon from Parvathy seals his fate. Ramankutty Nair enacted it with dramatic undertones. The supporting actors in both the plays did a commendable job. Kalamandalam Gangadharan, Madambi Subramaniyan Nambudiri and Kalanilayam Rajiv sang the slokams and the padams, striking a clear balance between music and literature in terms of the bhavas. Kalamandalam Unnikrishnan convinced the audience yet again that on the Valamthala (right face) of the chenda, he has no equals in eliciting emotive and rhythmic acting. Kalamandalam Narayanan Nambeesan and Kottackal Revi created a suitable ambience through the mellowed and loud tones of the maddalam that filled in the spaces left by the chenda. Kathakali and similar art forms are going thorough a period of transition that is trying to turn it into a mere form of entertainment. Vedika, founded by a devout group of aficionados of Kathakali, is committed to maintaining the pristine nature of classical art forms. Not an easy task.