“I had always been interested in Drama and was keen to produce a dance-drama with artistes trained by me here. ‘Kutrala Kuravanji’ was the first I produced,” said Rukmini Devi about her first production, as it proceeds on its momentous journey towards its platinum jubilee (75 years) mark. Rukmini Devi herself played the role of the heroine Vasanthavalli initially, with many of its distinguished alumni enacting the role over its many Avataars.
Kuravanjis are old Tamil dances in which a Kurathi — a soothsayer is an essential and important character of the story. ‘Thirukutrala Kuravanji,’ composed by Tirikooda Rasappa Kavirayar in praise of Lord Kuttralanathar of Thirukuttralam temple is supposed to be the oldest Kuravanji that was performed. After an extensive research, Rukmini Devi revived this production with a small group of her students at Kalakshetra in 1944. Musical score was by Veenai Krishnamachariar.
The story revolves around the heroine Vasanthavalli, who while playing with her sakhis sees a procession of Lord Siva and falls in love with the resplendent form. She confesses to her friend her desire to unite with the Lord, when a gypsy enters to foretell her future with the prophecy that she will indeed be united in wedlock with the lord.
A pictorial description of Lord Kuttraleshwara by the Kattiyakaran, played in a dignified manner by Sai Krishnan, heralded the unfolding of the story of ‘Kutrala Kuravanji’ at the inaugural day’s presentation of Kalakshetra’s February Festival (2018). Dancing in response to the musical score in a gestural language, two pairs of arms emerging from behind an aesthetically designed Tiraiseelai with an image of Siva appliquéd on it, held our attention as a prelude to the introduction of the four sakhis. Swathi, Aswathy, Vijayalakshmi and Maheswari describe in detail the adornments and form of the processional deity and the descriptions of the women who have left home leaving chores unfinished to see the grand procession. Little details such as the smudged kajal on one eye, a missing bangle and dishevelled attire established the impact of the deity on the women, setting the tone for the heroine’s entry.
An impressive and endearing portrayal by Janet James as Vasanthavalli explored in detail the playfulness of the young girl and her tormented state of love, her doubts about the fruition of her love and the joy on knowing her fortune. A scene where she addresses and converses with the moon was a visually captivating segment. The lyric was full of similes and verses and the soft blue lighting design (Venkatesh Krishna) and musical score blended seamlessly. The lyrics written in simple Tamil was an asset in understanding the depiction of the sancharis that were following the method of Vaakyartha Abhinaya.
The folk flavour became strong with the arrival of the Kurathi who presented vivid descriptions of the landscape and the Tirukutralam hills in graphic detail. Contrary to the popular imagination associated with the Kurathi as a woman with that extra verve and impishness and naughtiness, Aishwarya’s portrayal was different — as that of an evolved spiritual soul. The costume could have followed the traditional South Indian designs instead of the embroidered version. The four solid pillar drops at the back also disturbed the flow of movements.
Hariprasad needs to be complimented not only for enunciating the lyrics with clarity for the viewers to follow the rich poetic imagery but also for his melodic musical expression. Nattuvangam by K.P. Rakesh and mridangam by K.P. Anil Kumar complemented with their rhythmic sounds. K. Sivakumar on the violin, N. Ananthanarayanan on the veena and T. Sasidhar on the flute enriched the experience with their sensitive playing.
‘Kutrala Kuravanji’ is also significant in terms of its historical and artistic process visible between this and Rukmini Devi’s later productions. Being the first production, she had worked only with seven dancers and followed a direct narrative pattern, sustaining interest throughout. It does not boast her creative touches in terms of choreographic patterns, group formations and imaginative placements, which became her hallmark later. This Kuravanji, however, is vital as a documentation to trace the initial steps in the creative journey of a great visionary.