Theatre

Through the stages of Krishnattam

A scene from a performance of Krishnattam. Photo: special arrangement   | Photo Credit: special arrangement



Martha Bush Ashton-Sikora’s chance introduction to Krishnattam, the unique Sanskrit ritualistic dance-theatre, led her to do extensive research into the art form. Martha, who was in India in 1970 as part of her research on Yakshagana, was so enamoured by Krishnattam that for nearly 20 years she was associated with it, researching, documenting and finally coming out with a beautiful illustrated book with rare photographs on Krishnattam. Titled Krishnattam: Ritualistic Dance Theatre of Kerala, this work was first published in 1993.

A revised and enlarged edition, The Royal Temple Theater of Krishnattam, was released recently. Along with husband, Robert P. Sikora, a published photographer and co-author, Martha was assisted by A. Purushothaman and A. Harindranath, both of whom have written on the traditional arts of Kerala, documented and propagated them.

“I was searching for some information while working on Encyclopaedia of Asian Theater when I came across articles on Krishnattam by Harindranath and Purushothaman. I got in touch with them. In 2012 they asked me if I would like t o see my book republished. I was stunned. They were willing to be co-authors and that’s how the second edition got going,” says Martha in an e-mail chat.

Martha vividly describes her journey to the temple village of Arattupuzha along with her friend Lakshmy Kutty and Yakshagana teacher Hiriadka Gopala Rao where it all began. They were on a search for similarities between Yakshagana and other south Indian dance and theatre forms. Martha states that she felt that something unusual was about to happen at every turn amidst the celebrations, caparisoned elephants, crowds, clash of cymbals, the music and the noise.

In a field near the entrance of the temple, on a ‘temporary stage open on all sides and roofed with palm-frond mats’ a Krishnattam performance was to take place when the sun set. “It was unusual because, as you no doubt know, the Krishnattam troupe is in residence at the Vishnu-Krishna Temple in Guruvayur and most of its performances are held within the temple compound. Foreigners are not allowed inside many Kerala temples. I knew that from reading about Krishnattam and therefore I never expected to see it. You can imagine how overjoyed I was,” Martha recalls.

Sitting next to ACG Raja, the Krishnattam troupe manager, Martha was given a running commentary on the art form in general and a synopsis on the night’s play, ‘Avataram’, the first play in a series of eight that dramatises the life of Lord Krishna. Martha was hooked. “There is much in Krishnattam that is attractive – the dance, the costumes, makeup and the music. If I have to make a choice about the most delightful aspect, then it is the dance. Krishnattam is unique in that it contains a great deal of group dancing. Even though the dialogue is delivered by codified hand gestures a foreigner can easily understand the story. The vocal music is also pleasing to the ear.”

She first watched Krishnattam in Guruvayur from a hotel balcony. And later watched it from inside the temple. “Watching Krishnattam from the hotel balcony was an unusual occasion; although it was from some distance I was happy to see it in its usual place of performance. Some time later my mentor ACG Raja obtained permission for me to see Krishnattam at the temple. Then, I was fortunate to have three performers, Arvindakshan, Unnikrishnan and Shankaranarayanan, spend time with me while teaching me mudras. That added to my appreciation of the form.”

Initially, the plan was a documentary film on Krishnattam. Sanjeev Prakash, a New Delhi-based cinematographer, suggested that Martha should collaborate with the project. They decided to make an exploratory trip and the project was to be funded by the American Institute of Indian Studies. This, however, did not happen. Martha used the research to complete the book. “We will never know why that film did not happen. My best guess is that at that time my country had a new president and a new political party in charge of our government. They cut funds for the arts. The grant we had applied for was partly supported by our government.”

The book has 10 chapters. A detailed Introduction is followed by four chapters – The Time of Zamorins (1652-1955), The Time of Transition (1955-61), The Time at the Guruvayur Krishna Temple under ACG Raja (1961-83) and The Recent Time – in which Martha chronicles the historical perspective. In the next two chapters she moves to training and preparations for the performance. Martha devotes one chapter to the performance and in the last two talks about the future of Krishnattam, along with opinions and suggestions of artistes. The book includes a notes on how to meet challenges of the future.

“Researching is satisfying. This new edition is in collaboration with three others. It is the result of many years of work over the Internet with Purushothaman and Harindranath. The second edition was their idea. Their contribution, among many others, like the translation of the Krishagiti, the text of Krishnattam, provides many details of Krishnattam's stories and form an invaluable part of the book. My husband enhanced my old photographs, as well as others, proofread and helped edit the text. It is a rare collaboration between East and West. All of us together have put together a book that will inform more people about the devotional theatre of Krishnattam. That was our purpose,” Martha winds off.


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