Heroine extraordinaire

Ramachandran as Kurathi in his adaptation of Kadamannitta's poem 'Kurathi.'   | Photo Credit: Special arrangement

In his book ‘Art of Bertolt Brecht,' poet and thinker K. Satchidanandan describes Kathakali as a ‘frozen discourse,' as it does not offer anything thematically other than what spectators already know. His observation would have probably annoyed those who wanted to bring in progressive plots displacing the conventional plays that gratify mostly the elite and the aristocrats.

In the 1980's, Iyamkode Sreedharan, a poet and an alumnus of Kalamandalam, scripted the play, ‘Manavavijayam,' which closed in on the fierce encounter between imperialism and the working class. E.M.S. hailed the play and it was staged time and again in the cultural congregations of the Communist Party for several years. But slowly it died out.

Poetic venture

After a brief interlude, Oyoor Ramachandran, the Kathakali actor, was struck with the idea of translating Kadammanitta Ramakrishnan's striking poem, ‘Kurathi,' into a Kathakali recital. Edappally Fine Arts Society staged the play to a select and attentive audience.

In the present day world of pageantry, it is hard for an actor to escape the lure of choreographing a play as a ballet staged by a group of dancers. Ramachandran is to be felicitated for his bold decision to present ‘Kurathi' as a solo performance.

The aharya (make-up and costumes) of the tribal woman Malayatthi in the Kathakali play ‘Nizhalkuttu' has been an inspiration for Ramachandran in moulding the ‘appearance' of Kurathi. He has taken a couple of lines as the refrain, which offers lots of scope for logistic improvisation.

The play begins with the line, ‘ Malamchooral Madayil ninnum Kurathi ethunnu.' Questions of the Kurathi are galore from then onwards. ‘ Ningalende karutha makkale chuttu thinnunno?/Ningalavarude niranja kannukal choozhnnedukkunno?/Ningal njangade kuzhimaadam kulam thondunno?/Ningalorkkuka Ningalengane Ningalayennu?' Ramachandran made the last line into a refrain followed by ilakiyattam (improvisation).

The actor, as Kurathi, recollects the epicurean life of feudal aristocrats who indulge in activities detrimental to nature and humanness – cutting down trees, alcoholism, harvesting and denying the peasants their due, molesting women, practising untouchability, and the like. She also remembers the services the subalterns rendered to the landed aristocracy – ‘mootha maamara chottil ningal/ kaattukondumayangiappol/ kannuchimmathavide njangal kaaval ninnille?'

Visual imagery

Kadammanitta, the poet, was fostered by the folk-ritual tradition of his village, Padayani. The songs of Padayani have an irresistible bearing on some of his masterpieces such as ‘Kurathi' and ‘Kattalan.' A perceptive Ramachandran realised that the imagery in the poem ‘Kurathi' was adaptable and suitable for the visual language of Kathakali. There is no word in any of the lines in the poem that poses a challenge to the visual semantics of Kathakali. Such a direct approach is ideal to the linguistic space of Kathakali than symbolism and allegory. While Kumaranasan's and Vyloppilli's poetry might be difficult to adapt to the organic framework of Kathakali, Kadammanitta's explicit diction befits the art form. Ramachandran's realisation of it was manifested in his choreography.

Of the fourfold concept of acting, Ramachandran's execution of the hand gestures, movements, and kalasams as Kurathi were aesthetically chiselled and well-disciplined. His meticulous tutelage at Kerala Kalamandalam under the legendary Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair was amply reflected in the coherence and finesse of the angikabhinaya.

Ramachandran's saatwikabhinaya (emotive acting), while switching from anger to pathos and back, bore a heavy dose of realism in harmony with the verbal acting and the attire. As demanded by the poetic text, the actor had to border the theatrical excesses sporadically. Still he successfully retained the key components of Kathakali. An enviable footing in rhythm and tempo complemented Ramachandran's profound involvement with the character.

Raga Kedaragowla is customarily applied in Kathakali to evoke veera or raudrarasas. This could be the reason why the choreographer of ‘Kurathi'made it the major raga for the rendition of most of the lines. Towards the finale, the lines were sung in ragamaalika to denote the change in moods. Khandaram and Mohanam were employed to highlight the pathos, and the concluding Madhyamavathy had the desired impact.

Evocative music

The mid-tempo rendition was punctuated with two segments of slow tempos that emphasised the Kurathi's anguish over the fate of her tribe. The lines in Madhyamavathy were immediately followed by a fast kalasam in Triputa tala, proclaiming Kurathi's moral indignation and spirit of vengeance.

Kurathi's aharya sans the stylistic grandeur of Kathakali lost its charm as the play progressed. However, there seems to be no way to overcome this limitation.

The lead singer, Parimanam Madhu, could have been more ebullient in his singing. Kalabharati Unnikrishnan on the chenda and Kalamandalam Achuta Warrier on the maddalam maintained the physical and psychic timbre of the play with authoritative strokes.

Within an hour, Kurathi proved herself as an heroine extraordinaire; a character one cannot easily dismiss as a non-entity in Kathakali. The play might be disenchanting to conservatives and puritans. But it surely has the grit to stir this dance-drama tradition a wee bit out of its traditional thematic modes.

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Printable version | Oct 21, 2021 6:05:36 AM |

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