The story of Ekalavya makes a debut on the Kathakali stage

Innovative choreographies and thematic additions marked Sadanam Akademi’s Kathakali presentation, Ekalavyan

Published - February 23, 2023 05:40 pm IST

Artistes depicting the characters of Arjuna, drona and Ekalavya in Sadanam Akademi’s play Ekalavyan.

Artistes depicting the characters of Arjuna, drona and Ekalavya in Sadanam Akademi’s play Ekalavyan. | Photo Credit: SATHEESH NAIR

Obscurity largely defines the whereabouts of Ekalavya after the mythological tribal readily obeys Drona’s demand and offers one thumb to his virtual master. A new Kathakali play tracks the forest-dweller’s tragedy beyond his end as a brilliant archer. The three-hour production, besides rich with novel choreographies and appearances, lends fullness to the Mahabharata subplot through thematic additions nonexistent in Vyasa’s text.

The epic does refer to Ekalavya amid the 18-day Kurukshetra battle. In Drona Parva, prince Arjuna learns that Ekalavya continued to lord over the jungle by overcoming the handicap with an attachment to his lost finger. “So I eliminated him,” says Krishna as the Pandava’s charioteer. After all, the guru dakshina primarily sought to blunt Ekalavya’s prowess that potentially threatened Arjuna’s career.

Artistes depicting the role of Krishna and Ekalavya in Sadanam Akademi’s new play Ekalavyan.

Artistes depicting the role of Krishna and Ekalavya in Sadanam Akademi’s new play Ekalavyan. | Photo Credit: SATHEESH NAIR

Ekalavyan, the Kathakali show premiered by Sadanam Akademi, concludes with Krishna’s slaying the youth. Adorning it are fresh bits of imagination from the play’s director K. Harikumar, head of the Kerala institution at Pathiripala near Palakkad. One, instead of striving to become one with us all, Ekalavya wanted to be numero uno, Krishna tells the youngster. Yet, premature death is a harsh penalty; so he predicts Ekalavya would in his next birth shoot (back) an arrow that will kill the Vishnu-incarnate.

In fact midway through their duel, Krishna gives Ekalavya the option to quit. Fights are absurd without enmity, he says, adding felicity with a weapon is no excuse to take on people. Krishna even points out that both ‘rivals’ here are dark-skinned. On stage, though, the lord retains his classical green visage, while Ekalavya’s face is innovatively bluish. The central character (by Kalamandalam Manoj) has a headgear suggestive of his teenage, while borrowing elements from the woodsman’s costume in Kathakali. The rose petal-like marks below each eye appeared to be inspired by the villainous Shankhuchuda in that temple art of Krishnanattam.

A sequence from Sadanam Akademi’s play Ekalavyan.

A sequence from Sadanam Akademi’s play Ekalavyan. | Photo Credit: SATHEESH NAIR

Harikumar’s eclecticism even brings in sensibilities of Koodiyattam. The way Drona (Kottakkal Nandakumaran) stands behind Arjuna (Sadanam Mohanan) and monitors his weapon practice at the start bears an uncanny resemblance with jester Vidooshaka guiding his friendly protagonist in the ancient Sanskrit theatre. True, humour is absent in Ekalavyan, so is shringara — there’s no scope for romance. It’s all men; even the captivator Krishna (Kalamandalam Praveen) is just valorous. One-upmanship is the leitmotif. The plot warms up right from the opening scene, with the entry of Ekalavya within minutes after the curtain parts. His request to become Drona’s disciple invites an equally direct response: no. Worse, Arjuna snubs the newcomer with casteist remarks. Hurt, Ekalavya scoops a handful of soil from the spot and, into the second scene, is seen worshipping Drona’s idol made out of it. A hunter dog (in semi-realistic costume) distracts him, only to be subdued by a unique bowing technique which Drona thought he taught Arjuna alone. The ensuing consternation brings Drona and Arjuna to Ekalavya, who loses his thumb. Still valiant, he proposes a duel with Arjuna, prompting Drona to direct Ekalavya to Krishna for a ‘semifinal’.

Often, the pure-dance punctuations in songs incorporate footwork from other kalasams. Harikumar, into his 21st story-play, hasn’t waned in ideas or their execution. Assisted on the vocals by Jyothish Babu, the other accompanists were Sadanam Ramakrishnan, Jithin (chenda), Devadas and Jayaraj (maddalam). Leading a five-member team in the greenroom was Kalamandalam Balan.

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