Saundaryalahari, a new and novel Kathakali play

The play Saundaryalahari highlights the dramatic events that led to Shankaracharya’s ascension to Sarvajnapeeta

Updated - June 22, 2023 05:21 pm IST

Published - June 22, 2023 05:20 pm IST

From Saundaryalahari

From Saundaryalahari | Photo Credit: Special Arrangement

In any highly evolved art form, the theme is more often not subservient to the form. Kathakali is no exception. This could be the reason why many new plays are seldom staged again after being premiered. Yet Kathakali playwrights hardly seem to be disillusioned. Manoj Pulloor, who hails from a family devoted to the preservation and promotion of Kathakali for over a century, recently composed a play titled Saundaryalahari on the life of Sankaracharya. But the title has nothing to do with Adi Sankara’s famous literary work.

Although the intention of the play is to highlight the ascension of Sankara to Sarvajnapeeta after defeating scholar Mandanamishra from Midhila, the dramatic events (according to a vernacular version) that precede form the theme of Saundaryalahari.

Eight scenes

Spread over eight scenes, it begins with the entry of Amaruka, the king of Kashmir with his consort, Manjarika. In the succeeding scene Mandanamishra visits the king to share his apprehensions about the young saint Sankara, from south India, trying to defeat his opponents and attain Sarvajnapeeta. Mandanamishra tells him that his wife intervened in the debate he had with Sankara by raising a question about Kamasastra, of which the latter hardly knew anything. Sankara asked for a year’s time to familiarise himself with that branch of knowledge and, therefore, the debate discontinued. The angry king assures Madanamishra that he would annihilate the young saint’s ego.

In the third scene, the king conducts a Mruthyumjayahoma (a rite to lengthen the lifespan) led by Mandanamishra. Before its completion, Amaruka falls down dead. Sankara then reaches Kashmir accompanied by his disciples. He asks the palace rajaguru to make arrangements for their stay to be able see the body of the deceased king. On seeing the corpse of the king, Sankara tells his disciples to safeguard his body, since his soul would transmigrate into the king’s body. King Amaruka wakes up much to the amazement of his wife and others in the palace. Amaruka, who is reborn with the soul of Sankara now requests his consort to teach him all about Kamasastra. Soon the king discloses that he is actually Sankara, who will soon give up this body to enter his own. Thus continues his journey to attain Sarvajnapeeta.

Kathakali flavour

The first half of the play in which Amaruka describes the beauty of his consort carries the tone and texture of Kathakali. Kesavan Kundalayar, the talented actor, in the facial make-up of the villainous character, was extremely expressive. Kalamandalam Sajan as Manjarika tried hard to be moderate in his movements and expressions. Kalamandalam Manoj as Mandanamishra performed within the characteristic parameters of Kathakali and his interaction with the king was persuasive. In the latter half, Peesappilly Rajeev, an imaginative actor, played Amaruka bearing the soul of Sankara, which was no mean task. Rajeev presented this duality convincingly. Here Sajan as Manjarika did go a little overboard at times.

Interestingly, Sankara’s presence in the play, viewed from an aesthetic angle, was inconsequential. Hence Vishnu Vellakkad, who donned the role of the young saint, in newly designed costumes doesn’t deserve any special mention. While Vengeri Narayanan, the vocalist, supported by Sarang Pulloor and Sreedevan Cherumittam, sang the slokams, dandakams and the padams impressively, Kalamandalam Balasundaran on the chenda and Biju Attupuram on the maddalam contributed considerably to energise the actions and emotions of all the lead characters. The lyrics penned by Manoj Pulloor were lucid and easily comprehensible. Kalamandalam Sajan, who choreographed the play for the Kathakali stage, has taken a certain amount of liberty in emotionally building up the characters of Amaruka and Manjarika, especially in the latter half. The play was performed at the Changampuzha Park in Edappally.

If prudently edited, the duration of the performance can easily be reduced to three hours which would provide more intensity to the text, contexts and characters of Saundaryalahari. Whether the play would be added to the repertoire of Kathakali, time alone can tell.

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