Theatre

Touchstone of artistic expression

Baka and Bhima in 'Bakavadham' Photo: Jawaharji K.   | Photo Credit: Jawaharji K.

Drisyavedi, a non-governmental cultural organisation of 40 years standing in Thiruvananthapuram, celebrated its 24th annual ‘Naatyolsavam', with five evenings devoted to top class staging of select scenes from the four famous formative Kathakali plays of Kottayathu Thampuran (17th and 18th centuries). It was the second time that Drisyavedi was providing rasikas in the capital city such a feast of Kottayam compositions.

Kottayam plays are widely recognised as touchstones of artistes' mastery on all aspects of Kathakali, involving improvisation (manodharmam) within the rigid or tightly conventionalised performance structure or ‘chitta,' in common parlance. They constitute obligatory learning material in most Kathakali schools.

Despite manifold changes that took place, Kerala Kalamandalam still adheres to the well-established tradition of imparting rigorous and all-encompassing training related to acting, singing, instrumental accompaniment, and also make-up-cum-costuming in Kathakali, with special emphasis on the Kottayam compositions.

The deep rooted conviction of four generations of great masters in Kalamandalam has been that Kottayam plays offer the most challenging roles for Kathakali artistes. Thus, they amply deserve comprehensive and detailed training in kalari (practice space). One who masters the nuances of Kottayam plays can easily handle any scene in any other play, ensuring aesthetic pleasure for the ‘sahrdaya,' whose mind has been trained and cultivated to appreciate Kathakali. On the other hand, a trainee whose exposure is limited to popular plays such as ‘Nalacharitham,' ‘Kuchelavritham' and ‘Karnashapatham' or scenes such as Kacha-Devayaani and Usha-Chithralekha is sure to fall short of connoisseurs' expectations with regard to Kottayam plays.

The most common test put to candidates seeking appointment as vesham (role-play) instructor in Kalamandalam used to be presentation of a stanza (charanam) beginning with ‘Kutilathayakathaaril…' in Arjuna's prayer to Indra in the play ‘Kaalakeyavadham.'

The first item of the fete was a delectable presentation of a sringara rangam (romantic scene), featuring Kalamandalam Gopi's Bhima and Margi Vijayakumar's Hidimbi in ‘Bakavadham' (‘The Killing of Baka'). Both actors did full justice to the relevant text of the play, interspersed with all the ingredients of an amorous union of the young ‘rakshasi,' who is infatuated by Bhima. In the final section of the play, Bhima's role was handled dexterously by Ettumanur Kannan, whose ‘dhanaasi' (concluding invocation) dance, charged with the highest degree of enthusiasm and energy, proved quite impressive, and befitting the transformation of the character to the actor. Nelliyodu Vasudevan Namboothiri's portrayal of the demon Baka was, as usual, superb. It was commendably crisp, but included everything relevant to the context.

Pathos of Dharmaputra

Kalamandalam Gopi's Dharmaputra, in the initial scenes of ‘Kirmeeravadham' (‘The Killing of Kirmeera') was, as expected, a great treat. His semiotic trans-creation of every word in the play-text, crowning the relevant contexts with appropriate improvisation, grace and perfect synchronisation of each gesture and body movement with rhythm, and above all, mastery of the emotional (saathvika) aspect of acting provided the rasikas with a feast. The ‘dheerodaatha' and ‘sathyaveera' (chivalrous and truthful) hero in ‘Kirmeeravadham' is characterised by the enduring sentiment of ‘karunam' (pathos) soaked in unflinching devotion to Lord Krishna. Gopi's portrayal of that character, without transgressing the framework of Kalluvazhi chitta in which he was trained in Kalamandalam, presented a continuum of aesthetic beauty.

Octogenarian Madavoor Vasudevan Nair is the most dominant and active exponent of the Southern convention (Thekkan chitta) in Kathakali. His mastery of major characters in the kathi (depicting shades of negative characters) category, such as Bana, Ravana, Keechaka, Duryodhana, and Jarasandha, often reminds us of his guru, the legendary Chengannuur Raman Pillai. But connoisseurs have vivid recollections of his enthralling roles such as the Golden Swan, Sudeva and Sundarabrahmana also. Madavoor's Hanuman in ‘Kalyanasougandhikam' (‘The Fragrant Flower of Good Fortune') was par excellence. His pleasant disposition, subtle humour, multi-dimensional exchange with the audience, and self-effacing commitment to bring out the distinctively prominent feature of the character in question, as always, made his presentation memorable.

Charming hero

‘Kaalakeyavadham' (‘The Killing of Kalakeya') is considered the best and most challenging among the compositions of Kottayathu Thampuran. It is said that as the presentation of many an actor failed to meet his expectations, Thampuran himself appeared on the stage in the role of Urvasi, whose seeking of her perfect spouse in Arjuna was, according to the playwright, like a poem, fine in all respects, in attaining success. Staging of this play's first four scenes is strictly conventionalised and deserves to be entrusted to only consummate artistes who have sufficient self-confidence resulting from years of painstaking training and practice. Kalamandalam Krishnakumar's presentation of Arjuna in the above scenes was impressive and impeccable indeed. The graceful circles (‘chuzhippukal') he created by combining hand gestures, rhythmic patterns and eye movements and the postural compositions (kalaasams) he chose every time with great care (though it seemed to be performed effortlessly) so as to punctuate stanzas were appropriate to the contextual mood.

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Printable version | Feb 27, 2021 3:12:13 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/features/friday-review/theatre/touchstone-of-artistic-expression/article2853807.ece

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