In the service of Kathakali

Milena Salvini   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

Italy-born French national Milena Salvini was one of those honoured with the Padma Shri this year. She was recognised for her contribution to the classical art form of Kathakali.

Kathakali is one of the few classical art forms that has managed to thrive and flourish in the maelstroms of modernity, thanks to the efforts of a new generation of Kathakali aficionados. However, only a select few have the commitment to pursue the art as a rigorous discipline and dive into the very core of its artistic and philosophical depths. Milena Salvini is one of them.

Milena's deep devotion and understanding of the aesthetics of Kathakali is exceptional. Her contributions in popularising Kerala’s traditional performing arts, especially Kathakali and Koodiyattam, in Western countries are noteworthy.

In an interview, she once mentioned that it was a book authored by K Bharatha Iyer, titled Kathakali-Dance Drama of Malabar, which attracted her to Kathakali. Fascinated by the mythological content and the unique structure of the histrionic art, she decided to visit Kerala, the land of Kathakali. On her way to Kerala, she spent time at Shanthiniketan, Kolkata, and the International Centre for Kathakali, New Delhi, from where she took some basic lessons on the subject.

Eager to learn more, in 1965 she landed at Kerala Kalamandalam, which was set up by Mahakavi Vallathol at Cheruthuruthi, near Thrissur, on the banks of the Bharathapuzha. At Kalamandalam, she was fortunate to undergo the tutelage under renowned Guru, Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair. The training was however, brief. In the meantime, her association with the erudite Killimangalam Vasudevan Namboodiripad helped develop her insight into various traditional performing arts of Kerala, Kathakali in particular.

Till the first half of the 20th century, Kathakali was known as a form of dance, rather than a dance-drama, especially outside Kerala. This was mainly because of the popularity of newly created dance forms by Guru Gopinath, Anand Sivaram, Kalamandalam Madhavan and so on, which were inspired by Kathakali. The above mentioned talented artistes focussed mainly on the dance elements of Kathakali and their experiments were conducted on those lines. Uday Sankar, an internationally acclaimed dancer, was also influenced by Kathakali.

Members of the Kalamandalam troupe who toured the western countries in 1967

Members of the Kalamandalam troupe who toured the western countries in 1967   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

It took decades to get Kathakali recognised as a powerful theatre form. A four-month tour of western countries in 1967 by a Kerala Kalamandalam Kathakali troupe was instrumental in bringing this radical change in public perception. Milena, who was deputed as the art coordinator and manager for this tour, played a significant role in streamlining the performances to align with western sensibilities.

It was for the first time that a major troupe of Kathakali artistes was invited to perform this art in its most traditional form in western countries. The tour was originally arranged by the Ministry of Education of the Government of India, as part of the 1967 world expo at Montreal, Canada.

However, at the insistence of Alaien Danielou, an internationally acclaimed musicologist and an admirer of Kathakali, the visit of the Kalamandalam troupe was extended to European countries as well.

Most of the then veteran artistes, including Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair, Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair, Kalamandalam Gopi, Kottakkal Sivaraman and so on were part of the 17-member troupe. I was fortunate to be a junior member of this group.

The Kathakali troupe from Kalamandalam performing Mahabharata

The Kathakali troupe from Kalamandalam performing Mahabharata   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

In order to make the programmes impressive, a great deal of preparations had to be made. After prolonged discussions, edited versions titled Mahabharatha and Ramayana were prepared. Special rehearsal sessions, which were unheard of in the Kathakali stream, had to be conducted. After having gone through a month-long rehearsal, technical perfection and precision were achieved.

The performance was condensed to a performance of two-and-a-half-hours. Milena, well aware of the aesthetic sensibility of the theatre in the west, chose a pragmatic approach, keeping the western tradition intact, and, at the same time, causing least damage to the tradition of Kathakali.

The five-day opening show on May 23, 1967 was performed at the famous Odeon theatre in Paris under the auspices of Theatre De Nations, the most popular theatre group in Paris headed by the famous director and French actor Jean Louis Barrult.

The shows were performed to full houses. Leading newspapers such as Combat, L’Aurore and Le Figaro appreciated the theatrical power of Kathakali — a 'total theatre' where a harmonious blending of music, dance and drama was experienced. This performance made a great impact on the rest of the tour programmes planned for 1978, 1981 and 1983.

Similarly, no one can ignore Milena's role in popularising Koodiyattam in Europe. It was on her initiative that a Koodiyattam troupe visited Europe for the first time. A Kalamandalam troupe headed by Guru Painkulam Rama Chakyar toured Poland, Germany and France in 1980 and 1981 under the sponsorship of Centre Mandapa, a school of Indian dance, in Paris. The centre, established in 1975, gives training to around 100 students in classical dance forms such as Bharatanatyam and Kathak.

Milena's role cannot be ignored in getting Koodiyattam recognised as an intangible heritage by UNESCO.

She sustains her love and passion towards India's rich tradition in histrionic arts, particularly of Kerala, even in her 80s. “ In safeguarding the values and aesthetic beauty found in performing arts in particular, the spirit of Gurukula system has to be maintained without much compromise. Institutional training system is not at all acceptable. I only wish that Kalamandalam would preserve the divine spirit of the art which was there at that far back,” Milena wrote to me recently.

Two French books and three films on Kathakali are her major academic contributions.

Milena's daughter, Isabelle Anna, a Kathak dancer, is the present art director of Centre Mandapa. She runs the institution under the guidance of her mother. It is Milena's husband, Roger Filipuzzi, who established the Mandapa. He passed away in 2009.

The present Padma award is a befitting tribute to her contributions to Indian performing arts. Unfortunately, Milena was unable to attend the award ceremony held on March 11, 2019 in New Delhi.

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Printable version | Jan 22, 2021 6:25:55 AM |

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