“It is not a fusion concert, but an artistic collaboration, where two diverse forms converse with each other, challenging many established notions while retaining the aesthetics of each style,’’ said T.M. Krishna, Carnatic vocalist, before the performance of the travelling show Karnatic Kattaikuttu at Rukmini Arangam, Kalakshetra, Chennai.
Coming together for the first time, two artistes — Kattaikuttu actor, director and playwright Perungattur P. Rajagopal and T.M. Krishna — collaborating over a period of two years, explored the shared commonalities and differences of the two streams of art, both based on a core framework of music.
The vocalists and accompanying musicians seated on either end of the stage and the aesthetic ambience of the auditorium provided the perfect setting for the actors to enact two excerpts from an all-night play of the Mahabharata — Disrobing of Draupadi and the Eighteenth day. Offering their prayers to Vinayakar with a traditional song from the Kuttu repertoire and a Viruttam in Carnatic style, the performance gained momentum with the entry of Duryodhana. The Mallari, a traditional musical composition from the Nagaswaram repertoire played in temple processions was chosen for the traditional entry sequence of the character behind a Thiraiseelai. Krishna and Sangeetha Shivakumar’s rendition of the Mallari in all its majesty and grandeur was a perfect foil for this introductory scene.
“Carnatic music and Kattaikuttu theatre are at the opposite ends of a spectrum dividing the Indian performing arts into ‘Classical’ and ‘Folk.’ The collaboration shows that both traditions share foundational musical elements and concepts. Qualities used to define Carnatic music such as structure, pitch, pronunciation, complexity, rigour, oral recall, improvisation and creativity are found in equal measure,’’ said the programme notes. True enough there were many moments when the two forms blended seamlessly.
In the first scene, where Draupadi was dragged to court, viruttams and songs, which were packed with the emotion of anger, were rendered in a high pitch by Tamilarasi playing the role of Draupadi. As one got engrossed in the scene, one didn’t realise when the transition happened and Sangeetha was heard singing the same lines. The alternating voices flowed from one to another, effortlessly.
Interactions like this was experienced at many other moments, where the Carnatic notes played by Akkarai Subhalakshmi on the violin or the talams, played by Arun Prakash on the mridangam and Guruprasad on the ghatam, merged with the raw notes emanating from the Kattaikuttu artistes. R. Balaji (harmonium) and P. Sasikumar (mukavina) are brilliant artistes, whose music cannot be categorised as folk or classical. A. Selvarasu played the mridangam and dholak with vigour, ably supported by S. Gobinath with hand cymbals. From Mohanam and Kanada to Atana and Sindhubhairavi, the varied ragas unfurled their colours.
Musical notes were used effectively for the war sequence between the Kaurava and Pandava Senas. The choreography of the sequence using Kalari and other warfare movements had a very contemporary touch to it. Perungattur P. Rajagopal playing the role of Duryodhana in the second half, portrayed with great conviction and sensitivity, the angst, dejection and desolation of the mighty king. The emotion-drenched passages sung by him, explaining his situation and mental state to the Kattiyakaran, was contrasted by T.M. Krishna singing as the voice of Lord Krishna ‘Idhuvum Nalla Vidhivasamo’ in Saama ragam in a steady monotone rendition, evoking a philosophical experience.
In the story of the Eighteenth day, Kattiyakaran the jester tells Duryodhana to go down on his knees and later crawl on the floor to evade being detected by Bhima. This scene was a kind of metaphor for how one has to overcome ego and pride to attain equanimity. Krishna had shed his star status to consciously work towards integrating the two forms. It requires courage of conviction on the part of an artiste, to share centre stage.
A conversation between Krishna and Rajagopal between the two acts, provided an insight into the evolution of the ideas that went into the making of the event.
The Kattaikuttu art itself has undergone a process of aesthetic reformation and refinement under the guidance of Rajagopal. The orange red colour palette of the costumes and the subtlety of the gold foiled wooden ornamentation with mirrors designed by Hanne M. De Bruin, were a visual delight. The three women artistes also made their strong presence in a male-dominated cast. R. Kumar, R. Devan, A. Kailasam, M. Duraisamy, A. Bharathi, S. Haribabu and S. Srimatthy played their roles well. Lights and sets were handled by Sue. E. Rees.
The collaboration did leave an impact, because of the deep passion each artiste had for his art and a commitment to showcase excellence.
Opinions may differ about the conceptualisation of two art forms coming together, but the fact that there were no discordant notes augurs well for a dialogue like this.