Kalakshetra’s 13th Kathakali festival ‘Bhava Bhavanam- Rasa Sara’ presented five dance dramas, each a treat. Some were emotionally charged with mood music and some had additional free style manodharma and sharper percussion, the common thread being the high standard of musicians and dancers and their synchronisation. All this, despite the fact that none of them had been rehearsed.
This will imply that the dance dramas are fairly standard. Yet there seems to be space for individual artistry in music and acting. Interestingly, maturity is celebrated, and older dancers, octogenarians and older are welcome.
Kathakali is a difficult artform to learn and master. As Kalamandalam Thulasi Kumar (Duryodhana) pointed out, ‘Kathakali artists use eye and various facial muscles to express different emotions. Isolating facial muscles is key- cheek muscles under the eye, for anger, muscles near the mouth for sadness, movement of the eyebrows for happiness, etc Once the make up is on, we are not supposed to open the mouth, except for alarcha, shrieking.’ Movements wearing elaborate head gears, heavy costumes and other-worldly make up, must be a challenge as well.
Kalakshetra has an active Kathakali department since 2007 when veteran Sadanam Balakrishnan joined as faculty. They pride themselves on the Kalladikkodan style of Kathakali maestro Chandu Panikkar, who established the Kathakali department and helped founder Rukmini Devi in choreography while participating with her now world-famous dance dramas. This style emphasises anga shuddham, not commonly stressed on elsewhere. They have recently documented this.
Enhanced by the presence of Kalamandalam Prashanth on the campus, the students presented an invocatory Thodaya Mangalam or Purappad before every dance drama. The pieces emphasised the nritta component of Kathakali. The students were accurate with the timing and tidy in execution.
Kalakshetra’s ‘Duryodhana Vadham’, the finale to the festival, evoked much excitement because of the participation of home-grown Kalakshetra artistes. Authored by Vayaskara Aryan Narayanan Moosath, it is a dramatic and popular dance drama. The story begins with the end of the Pandavas’ vanavas and one year of agyatavas, when the five brothers ask for their share of the kingdom, until Dushasana’s gory death during battle and the fulfilment of Draupadi’s vow. Musicians Kottakal Madhu and Nedumpally Rammohan almost stole the show with their bhava-laden melody. The technical expertise of Kalamandalam Thulasi Kumar (Duryodhana), the powerful show by Kalamandalam Prashanth (Roudra Bheeman) and the dignified, light-footed Hari Padman (Krishnan) were the other stand outs.
The evil brothers, Duryodhana and Dushasana (Sadanam Mohan), paired well to arrogantly dismiss their father, Dritarashtra’s pleas, and Krishna’s requests. To be convincing, evil characters usually require more skill. Krishna is agitated and there is an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation between him and Duryodhana. There are four drummers now, (Kalamandalam Venumohan and Kalamandalam Sreehari- Chenda and Margi Ratnakaran and Kalnilayam Omanakuttan- maddalam) building up momentum.
Roudra Bheema’s thiranokku presentation, added to the drama. Earlier, the entry of Krishna to the Kaurava court through the audience and now the presence of Dushasana in the audience while Bheema looks for him, their duel and Dushasana’s gory death, were nothing short of bone-chilling. For all this, one should note that fights in kathakali are quite tame. It is the percussion that makes the difference. The vocalists add their might with the gong and the cymbals. Nothing is ever out of rhythm, neither a foot movement nor a hand gesture.
Another action-packed show from the Ramayana was ‘Thorana Yuddham’, the adventures of Hanuman, with attakatha by Kottakkara Thamburan. There were hardly any padams in this and the percussion with Kalamandalam Unnikrishnan and Kalamandalam Ravishankar (chenda) and Kalanilayam Manoj and Kalamandalam Vineeth (maddalam) took centrestage. It was manodharma all the way.
The energy was high from the opening thiranokku of Vellai Thadi Hanuman, dressed with a fur blouse, white headdress and beard. Fast and loud percussion, Hanuman shrieking with one foot on a stool made for a dramatic first-look. The 60-year old Sadanam Bhasi could have been a sprightly youth with his energy.
Motivated by the Rama nama, Hanuman grows himself big and jumps off the Mahendragiri with a roar towards Lanka. He encounters a dragon Surasa who wants to swallow him; he grows himself bigger but when he finds the dragon’s mouth expanding, he shrinks himself to go into her mouth and comes out through her ear. The percussion followed this expansion and contraction in unison, with a frenzy at first, then tiptoeing for the second.
Hanuman encounters Lanka Lakshmi (Kalamandalam Parthasarathy) who has a powerful presence. With her out of the way, he enters Lanka. Looking for Sita, he enters Ravana’s bed chamber. A beautiful woman is lying there, is that Sita? He decides no and proceeds to Ashoka vana where he spots her. He goes behind a tree to hide. Until now its all percussion.
Ravana (Sadanam Manikandan) and Mandodari enter along with a brood of rakshasas including their chief Prahasthan (Jayakrishnan). The 10-headed king heads off to Ashoka Vana to woo Sita (Janet). With expert technique and a slow build-up of emotions, Ravana is patient. He compliments her and tempts her with jewellery, while praising himself in comparison to Rama. Janet exhibited good concentration and a stoic refusal to respond. There were moments of comic relief woven into the script, without disturbing the story, something seen in ancient theatre art forms such as Kathakali. Most of this scene was percussion-based. Sita’s rejection at the end inflames Ravana who turns violent.
Cut back to Hanuman who makes himself known to Sita once Ravana is dragged away, and promises to be back to rescue her, with Rama within a month. Action ensues when Hanuman disturbs the intoxicated rakshasas and tries to destroy the garden to draw attention to himself. He warns Ravana and uses the fire on his tail to set fire to lanka. His technique and agility with the fire was exhilarating as was the accompanying excellent chenda and others. Sadanam Sivadas and Sadanam Jyothish Babu provided good music and added to the percussive strength with the gong and cymbals respectively.
The festival this year did not have presentations from institutions, rather it was a coalition of well-known artists from different schools, picked by Kalakshetra under the guidance of Sadanam Balakrishnan. The seamless productions reflected their shared artistic heritage.
Nala Charitham from the Mahabharata, with the attakatha by Unnayi Warrier, is a four-part staging. Part three was staged over two days in ‘Bhava Bhavanam’. Nala (Kalamandalam Mukundan) is wandering in the forest delirious. He has lost his kingdom and wife Damayanti. There is a forest fire and he hears a call for help. It’s the snake Karkotakan (Kalamandalam Shiby Chakravathy) who bites him after being rescued. Nala turns into a deformed being Bahukan (Kalamandalam Krishnakumar). He is advised to stay in Rituparna’s court until he gets a mantra from him and the poison from his system is exorcised and he can return to normalcy.
Nala’s manodharma in his monologue and Karkotakan’s dramatic costume and intricate cheek and eye movements were interesting. But Bahukan’s description of the forest, particularly the pregnant deer episode was the highlight of the show. In manodharma, to percussion, he describes a deer in the throes of labour, surrounded on all sides by danger- a hunter taking aim on one side, a hungry tiger on the other, a forest fire on the third and a raging river on the fourth. Bahukan watches this scene and prays for the deer. Within moments, deliverance arrives in the form of lightning that kills the hunter, whose arrow misses the target and hits the tiger, and the rain douses the fire. The deer is saved; it delivers two fawns and fondles both. The labour and the mother tenderly fondling the fawns were memorable. Credits: Kalamandalam Vinod, Sadanam Sivadas and Vaikkom Vishnu Dev (vocal), Kalamandalam Krishnadas, Kalamandalam Sreeraj and Sadanam Ramakrishnan (chenda) and Kottakal Ravi and RLV Sudev Varma (maddalam).
Part 2 of Day 3 of Nala Charitham took the tale from Rituparna’s court where Bahukan has established himself as a charioteer and cook. The well-known melodies rendered by Kalamandalam Babu Namboothiri and Kalanilayam Rajeevan were sublime. They were of the best teams in the festival. Bahukan’s lament in ‘Vijanebatha’ (Todi) and the Brahmin’s bright reassurance to the desolate Damayanti in ‘Yami Yami Bhaimi’ (Madhyamavathi), and Bahukan crying over Rituparna’s vivid description of Damayanti, intolerable to his ears, in ‘Mariman kanni mouli yude’ (Dwijavanti) were some of the gems. Excellent role play accompanied the music with Bahukan (Kottakkal Kesavan Kundlayar), Damayanti (Kalamandalam Praveen), Brahmin Sudevan (Kalamandalam Kesavan Namboothiri) and Rituparna (Girish Madhu).
The story of Rukmini Swayamvaram from Srimad Bhagavatam skirted by Aswathy Thirunal Maharaja defied all norms of entertainment, as it unfolded at its own pace. Rukmini (Kalamandalam Praveen) is sad after her brother Rukmi has fixed her wedding with Sishupala; she sends word to Krishna who saves her in time.
The mood music (Vengeri Narayanan, Kalamandalam Sudheesh) and the restraint of the percussionists- Kurur Vasudevan Namboothiri and Sadanam Jithin, (Chenda) and Kalamandalam Achutha Warrier and Kalamandalam Aneesh (maddalam), need to be appreciated. At low moments, they stayed low and speeded up when they needed to.
The sorrowful Damayanti calls upon a Brahmin (Kalamandalam MPS Namboothiri) to be a messenger to Krishna (Ranjini Suresh). The Brahmin’s comforting ‘Chitha tapam’ in Kamboji was one of the musical highlights of the three-hour dance drama among other beautiful, slow padams. Good music accompanied by mature acting especially Krishna who tries to hide his love for the sincere Rukmini, with some laughs thrown in when Krishna invites the panicky Brahmin to ride on the chariot with him and the episodes with Bheeru (RLV Prem Shankar) and Sishupala (Kalamandalam Vyshakh), made for the wholesome Rukmini Swayamvaram.
The Chennai-based writer reviews classical dance.