Kapila Venu’s “Parvati Viraham”: Ungendering Kutiyattam

Showcasing myriad emotions Kapila Venu in “Parvati Viraham” Special Arrangement

Showcasing myriad emotions Kapila Venu in “Parvati Viraham” Special Arrangement  


In “Parvati Viraham”, Kapila Venu integrates her feminist politics into the traditional piece, nudging subtle shifts in perspective that she believes would also appeal to contemporary sensibilities

It is way past midnight. A hall full of youngsters is in rapt attention, immersed in an ancient tale. Parvati and Shiva are quarrelling. The lovers’ tiff deepens as she inquires suspiciously about his amorous exploits with the river goddess – Ganga. He feigns ignorance and cleverly dodges her pointed questions. The exchange between the two gradually escalates from flippant volleys to a more profound emotional tenor. Parvati is angry, jealous, hurt. Shiva is defensive, desperate to assuage her aspersions. She finally decides to leave. This is the highlight in the narrative where the performer on stage – Kutiyattam exponent Kapila Venu, interprets the move as a decision of dignity by Parvati, and portrays the shock and remorse of Shiva with sensitivity.

The conversation is played out by one actor on stage – a common technique in the classical dance tradition where the soloist enacts various characters. The difference in this case is that this composition, “Parvati Viraham”, is part of the age-old repertoire of Kutiyattam, and has traditionally been performed only by men. Selecting this piece to be presented at the annual SPIC MACAY convention in Jawaharlal Nehru University in Delhi, Venu was convinced that it would strike a chord with young people. “I leave the piece intact and don’t do anything specific to try and reach out to young audiences,” says the artist. “I want it to be authentic and deep as it is. I prefer to keep it genuine, rather than trying to simplify. But I take the time to do a workshop, run the story by the young people first, tell them about the language of the form, and generally make an effort to give them an orientation so that they can enjoy it.”

Kapila Venu’s “Parvati Viraham”: Ungendering Kutiyattam

Switching roles

Pakarnattam is an aspect of Kutiyattam that involves embodying and emoting male and female roles. Switching between the masculine and feminine and interpreting multiple roles at the same time is considered a challenging skill within the repertoire. It is believed that the actor needs to empty the mind in order to undergo the transformation and bring the characters alive in the portrayal. Although Venu has been performing the Nangiar Koothu, the solo section of female performance in Kutiyattam, for a long time, this particular composition has been a novel challenge for her. She reveals that it took her time to bring this composition on stage since she believed it would be difficult to pull it off as a solo, yet her father encouraged her to attempt this.

“I learnt ‘Parvati Viraham’ a long time ago and only recently started performing it,” reflects Venu. She integrates her feminist politics into the traditional piece, nudging subtle shifts in perspective that she believes would also appeal to contemporary sensibilities. “Since this was always performed by men in the past, Parvati was portrayed from a masculine perspective. Being a woman, I interpret it differently. The portrayal is not caricatured or satirical, instead, I choose to go into the emotional depth.” While most male performers have imbued the episode with mirth and a tinge of the comical, Venu chooses to delve into the ‘depth and lightness’. She explains, “I say depth because it is not just whimsical or amusing. Parvati is doubtful and hurt and I show those conflicting emotions with sincerity. But then, there is also ‘lightness’– because even for the woman, the husband is not her entire world! Parvati decides to leave, and that is a strong decision.”

Venu has earlier essayed women characters from epics and mythology powerfully. Her interpretations of Sita and Shakuntala for instance, were also similarly anchored in modernist and feminist philosophy, providing complex layers to the characters alongside context to their struggles in a patriarchal society. It deflected traditional aesthetics to the terrain of the subtle and radical. “Like most of the women characters I portray, there is a lot of me in my portrayal of Parvati,” shares the performer.

On the other hand, playing the male characters has been another kind of challenge for Venu. She departs from the regular depictions again to give them a different slant too. “When I play Rama, or Shiva, for instance, I tend to make the male characters more vulnerable, a bit more emotional. We always see the women pining, but I think men also pine for the women they love. In ‘Parvati Viraham’, Shiva is caught between the two women and though he initially finds Parvati’s jealous inquiry amusing, later he feels regret as she leaves, and experiences joy when she returns.”

Venu spends months researching the narratives and building the characters in each piece. Having received a lot of brickbats from purists for her interventions within the traditional Kutiyattam repertoire, she now believes it is more important to keep her artistic vocabulary aligned to her politics. “I exercise my own judgement, the feminist that I am. I try to be honest to myself and to my politics. If I feel some interpretation in a traditional composition is totally out of line with my beliefs, I either attempt to challenge it and present a different perspective, or I don’t do it at all.”

Evolving tradition

The social and cultural milieu from where the ritual theatre of Kutiyattam has evolved continues to present a paradox to Venu. “It is definitely still very gendered. We have very specific audience, that also consists of the authoritative traditionalists, scholars, connoisseurs, and others. There, I often feel everything I propose is very radical while it may be quite a common and accepted aspect in other contexts. But over the years I have realised that it is important to take big steps rather than to evolve gradually.”

Venu has created her own strategy as an artist and as a woman practising a traditional form in a gendered space. “Now I don’t pay much attention to such criticism and try not to get affected by the opinion of others,” she states assertively. She recalls a meeting with renowned Bharatanatyam exponent Malavika Sarukkai many years ago that deeply inspired her. “Among other things I learnt this from her – delight in what you do, and do it for yourself. I follow this philosophy of hers.”

Having trained with several gurus, Venu feels it was a natural decision for her to become an artist, hailing from a family that has been devoted to the arts. She is a disciple of the legendary Kutiyattam maestro Guru Ammannur Madhava Chakyar and daughter of Kutiyattam exponent G Venu and Mohiniyattam exponent Nirmala Paniker. She has also trained under Usha Nangiar and Kitangur C N Rama Chakyar in Kutiyattam.

“Training never ends,” she believes, “I am still in training, I never felt I have outgrown being a student.” Each guru had their own indelible impressions on the young artist. She recalls she always saw Chakyar as a kind of superhuman-actor she could only aspire to be. She observed her father closely as a proficient actor-trainer, and her mentor who also conceptualises and choreographs most of her compositions. Being one of the few women performers in the arena, Usha Nangiar has been her role model in many ways. Venu also spent years training with the Japanese dancer-actor, Min Tanaka. “With Tanaka it was not only about performance, he instilled in me the seriousness and depth of dance and daily life,” she reflects. “He believes dance doesn’t begin and end in the side-wings, dance is everything that you do in life. He inspired people to have conversations with nature, to feel the weather, be out there in the body and mind. His approach inspired me deeply in my artistic journey.”

Since the past few years, Venu has been the Director of Natanakairali, the arts institute established by her father. Evolving her own vision, she says, “It has gone through different phases. Now I would like to facilitate it as a space for training, a hub for traditional ritual performances, as well as contemporary work, an inviting arena for performing, research gathering and just being artists.”

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Printable version | Jan 18, 2020 11:12:10 AM |

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