History & Culture

Hero with rare depth of character

M.V. Narayanan

M.V. Narayanan

Prof. Dr. M.V. Narayanan, a scholar-researcher in the performing arts of Kerala, especially Koodiyattam, Professor of English, Calicut University, and a brilliant speaker spoke about why he considers Unnayi Warrier’s ‘Nala Charitham’ attakatha the first text of Kerala’s modernity. According to him, not just in the realm of the performing arts, but across literary and social thinking, this ‘profound, human interest’ story signified a breakthrough. ‘A Malayali’s understanding of himself or herself was never the same...,’ declared the orator.

In a bold move, Warrier’s re-writing of a puranic story, made heroes of humans. This was a new concept, as Kathakali and its precursor Ramanattam only dealt with gods as heroes. To add to this new line of thought, Damayanthi actually rejects the gods and chooses a man in her swayamvara. Another winning argument was that the hitherto god-heroes stood for a singular virtue such as valour, righteousness or virtue (Prof. Narayanan calls them uni-dimensional cardboard cutouts), but here was a hero who questioned himself and displayed a rare depth of character. For the professor, it is this inner quest for what is right that was the first indication of modernity.

Another departure from the then existing Kottayam stories in Nalacharitham is the concept of love. What was regarded as purely physical and carnal, was given a new psychological angle. For example, when Nala decides to marry Damayanthi, he ponders over how to make her love him, rather than just possess her. That’s why Prof Narayanan calls Nalacharitham a pre-modern, modern text.

Kalamandalam M.P.S. Namboodiri, a well-known Kathakali artist, a former Principal of Kerala Kalamandalam, now Dean, Kalamandalam Deemed University, and co-author of a book on Kathakali spoke on, ‘Nala Charitham: Challenges for an Actor.’ He quoted Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon, doyen of the Kalluvazhi style of Kathakali, as saying that Nalacharitham is only for those actors who have obtained authority in the Kottayam stories. If not, he warned, the integrity of its padams may suffer.

Prof. Namboodiri explained why. Technique in Kathakali as we know it today, evolved with the Kottayam stories (Kalyana Sougandhikam, Bhagavatham, etc), and so learning them is important in training. There is room for repetition there, which is also an important part of the training process. The method of training in Kathakali is a process that starts from the body and moves to the mind. Learning, perfecting and stylising the steps (kalasams), training the different parts of the body for abhinaya (expressions), massages and lastly understanding the plot and the characterisations are the components of the training process.

Artists believe that Nalacharitham is beyond what can be taught in a classroom. Prof. Namboodiri quoted Kutty Krishnan Nair, a teacher in Kalamandalam at the time of Vallathol who declared, ‘Literal expression (padartha abhinaya) of the words is not enough; consistency in expression of the state of mind (sthayi) is necessary.'

If there is no drama without conflict, then the battles in Nalacharitham are all in the mind. That is why it is so complex. Prof. Namboodiri concluded by saying in every generation, there can be only one or two Nalas. In the previous generation it was Guru Kunchukkurup, now it is Kalamandalam Gopi.

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Printable version | May 21, 2022 11:30:21 am | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/history-and-culture/hero-with-rare-depth-of-character/article3917918.ece