Heralding change

Kathakali artiste Sadanam Harikumar. Photo:S.Gopakumar   | Photo Credit: S. GOPAKUMAR

Sadanam Harikumar is a stickler for tradition. But that doesn't mean he is any less of a a trendsetter on the Kathakali stage. He is an artiste who dares to experiment and one who has “no qualms about ruffling a few feathers.” For a while now, the versatile Harikumar, who has also excelled in various fields such as painting, sculpture, and music, among others, has been at the forefront of change in Kathakali – traditionally, a medium that doesn't allow for much in way of change. However, as the artiste keeps on reiterating throughout the interview, his experiments are “always, always within the strictures of Kathakali.”


“Innovation in Kathakali is good, definitely necessary for its future. But these innovations must be within tradition. Think of Kathakali as an old house that needs maintaining. We have to preserve the structure/framework of the house but nothing should stop us from modifying its interiors, using available materials, to suit the standards of the age. Kathakali evolved like this over the centuries. I've not tried to create anything that does not exist in Kathakali. Instead, I've only tried to fill in the existing blank spaces. For example, if a play like ‘Abhimanyu' was already there, then I wouldn't necessarily have had to write it. Similarly, the character of Vavar, which I introduced in ‘Manikantacharitham.' If there was a traditional structure for it, then I wouldn't have had to ‘create' one. I believe that the art which I am living should be a living thing,” says Harikumar, who adds that he finds inspiration for new idioms in Kathakali, especially with regards to aharya, in his observations of murals and scrutiny of existing texts.

Harikumar has “braved quite a few odds” to write and choreograph seven new attakathas. , among them ‘Charudatham' – the Kathakali version of the Shakespearean tragedy ‘Julius Caesar.' Besides he has also brought about several “modifications” to different aspects of the art form, especially with regards to the aharya (costumes).

Some of Harikumar's most definitive changes have been making the aharya more ornamental for female characters, such as giving a crown and a new style of draping a sari for Urvashi in ‘Sapamoksham.' He has designed a ‘thiranokku' for Vavar (“because Vavar doesn't necessarily “come under the purview of Thadi, Kathi or any such veshams”), new costumes for Karna and Drona in ‘Abhimanyu,' and so on.

It's a given that all these innovations are challenging tasks, especially when you consider the technicality of Kathakali grammar. Was it equally challenging to gain acceptance for them? “Actually, there are two kinds of audiences for new plays. One set observes them without any pre-conceived notions about Kathakali and accept it as a way forward for the art form. Then there are those self-proclaimed ‘critics' who believe that it's their moral right to question why I've had the gall to change something – why Vavar, for example, doesn't follow a particular style of vesham. I don't believe in compromising the aesthetics of plays or characters to suit so-called traditionalists,” emphasises Harikumar.

Perhaps it's a confidence that stems from the fact that Harikumar literally grew up with Kathakali, and has seen its evolution first hand. His father, Sadanam Kumaran, founded the Gandhi Seva Sadanam in 1946 in Ottappalam, which runs Sadanam Kathakali Academy (established in 1954, of which he is now the secretary). Besides, on his maternal side, he belongs to the lineage of Kakkad Karanavar, a renowned patron of Kathakali and one of those instrumental in the founding of Kerala Kalamandalam, which is built on the Karanavar's family ‘kalari.' Harikumar, who began learning Kathakali while in class three, has also had “the privilege” of studying under legendary artiste Keezhpadam Kumaran Nair.

After dabbling in Zoology (at Christ College, Irinjalakuda) he “realised the error of his ways” and won himself a central government scholarship to study Kathakali further under Keezhpadam. Meanwhile, he also studied Carnatic music under Sebastain Joseph Bhagavatar and completed his masters in Malayalam and a B.Ed. degree too. He got a lectureship in Kathakali at Shantiniketan, Kolkata, in 1989, where he began experimenting in sculpture and art, and which set him on course to be the jack of all trades that he is now.

So, painter, sculptor, artist, musician, choreographer, administrator, Kathakali exponent… will the real Harikumar stand up? (Laughs) “That's probably the most difficult thing that I would ever have to do. I make no claims that I am an expert in all these fields, but that I love the arts, and simply enjoy whatever I do.”

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Printable version | Dec 7, 2021 12:35:00 AM |

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