“Art carries the power to engage with society. It has to take note of what is happening around,” says Jayakrishna S J, secretary of Kerala Kalakshetra Academy of Arts and Culture, Amballur, in Ernakulam district. The academy recently staged a Kathakali performance, ‘Nareevijayacharitham’, based on domestic abuse. The aattakatha (story in verse form) used for Kathakali], written by Vijayan Kamattathu, dwells on the travails of a woman in her marital home.
Kathakali performances are usually based on the epics, puranas and spiritual texts. “We wanted to tell a story with a contemporary theme, one that resonates with the times,” says Jayakrishna. “This aattakatha depicts the mental torture a young girl has to endure at her husband’s home just because her family was not as financially sound as the groom’s. This is the situation of many women in Kerala today,” he adds.
Though the story was written in true aattakatha form, in slokas (verses), adapting it to Kathakali was challenging. Renowned Kathakali artiste RLV Gopi Asan, who choreographed the aattakatha, used a clever mix of pacha (for heroes), kari (for demonic beings) and minukku (used for Brahmins and women) veshams (characters) to tell the story.
“Though a modern story, it contains elements of fantasy and folklore. The woman’s husband tries to scare her with a rat snake (non-venomous), but she dies and turns into a yakshi (female version of a vampire), who returns for revenge,” Jayakrishna explains. Much thought went into portrayal of the yakshi. “She is of demonic nature, but is extraordinarily beautiful, so Gopi Asan decided on a combination of kari and minukku veshams.”
All the experimentations in dress and narration stay within the tenets of Kathakali. “It is a complete art form and does not require one to do anything more. The story and the minor tweaks to the veshams have been done without diluting the essence of Kathakali,” explains Jayakrishna.
The Kerala Kalakshetra Academy, which is supported by the Ministry of Culture, had performed ‘Rakshakan’ an attakatha based on Jesus Christ’s life, written by Kalamandalam Ganesan. It was performed in 2020. “We aim to have more performances on contemporary themes that people can relate to,” says Jayakrishna.