Art has no caste

A scene from Gurudevamahatmyam, which has caused a controversy in Kerala. Photo: K.K. Gopalakrishnan   | Photo Credit: mail pic

Kerala’s much-vaunted high literacy rate does not seem to have had an effect on the religious issues and caste controversies that continue to play a significant role in the state. The latest storm raging is about a ban on staging Gurudevamahatmyam, a Kathakali performance on Sree Narayana Guru, a saint from an Ezhava family.

The performance was slated to be staged at Sree Rama temple in Triprayar in Thrissur, Kerala’s cultural capital. According to the producer Sadanandan Engoor, chairman of Triprayar-based Kalimandalam, the temple devaswom manager K.K. Rajan gave verbal permission to stage the play, but later denied it. Engoor claims that Rajan “subsequently dragged in the tantri” in charge of the temple rituals and customs.

Rajan’s version differs: “All I said was that the request would be considered. This is not verbal permission. Subsequently, I referred the matter to Tarananelloore Padmanabhan Nambootiri, the temple tantri. Through his letter of October 17, he denied permission to stage Gurudevamahatmyam and clearly stated that only selected plays on gods and goddess should be staged inside the temple precincts.” Rajan adds that he hails from the Ezhava community and has enormous respect for Narayana Guru. The local Ezhava community has since filed a complaint against the ban.

In the 1970s, Kumaran Asan’s poem ‘Karuna’, depicting the passionate love of dancing girl Vasadutta for Buddhist monk Upagupta, was presented inside this temple and did not create a furore. The tantri explains this away by saying that it was presented as Kathaprasamgam, an oral narrative; not a visual presentation like Kathakali.

Interestingly, when one studies the history of Kathakali, some Ezhava families owned dance troupes but faced opposition from the upper castes when they performed traditional plays. Kallasseri Velayudha Panicker, an Ezhava, was the first lower caste person to take up Kathakali. He went on to train his seven sons and also made the costumes since no one would rent them any. Their show premiered in 1862 with the permission of the local ruler. This was opposed by the upper castes who filed a suit claiming that to allow Ezhavas to play characters from Hindu epics would invite the wrath of the gods. However, the judge overruled it, providing a morale boost to subsequent dancers from the community.

The present controversy has clearly little to do with the aesthetics of the art. Kalimandalam’s two earlier productions Kunti-Karna and Karuthamma (based on the famous novel Chemmeen) received encouraging response. Says Kalamandalam Ganeshan, the author of the present play, “The verses are in chaste Malayalam and composed in ragas such as Bhairavi, Dwijawanthi, Kalyani, Sankarabharanam, Mohanam, Madhyamavathi. The theme is the suffering of the untouchables in the 19th century and how Narayana Guru fought for their uplift. It culminates in the Guru symbolically consecrating a Shiva temple for the less fortunate.” Ironically, the ban on the play seems to underscore the continuing play of caste chauvinism in Kerala and leads one to wonder if the Guru was successful in his fight to end caste bigotry.

Veteran Kathakali artiste Nelliyode Vasudevan Nambootiri, also a tantri attached to a few temples in Kerala, while saying that “the play is worth popularising,” adds that Narayana Guru’s caste should not have any bearing on staging the dance.

The controversy has had one very positive fallout. In a heartening show of support, the play is getting a large number of performance bookings, especially in temples under the command of the Sree Narayana Dharma Paripalanayogam (SNDP) in Kerala and elsewhere. It is also attracting a large number of people, many of them first-time audiences for a Kathakali performance. As Lakshmanan, an auto-driver, said, “This is my first experience of Kathakali, though I am a Malayali living in Kerala. Frankly, the controversy and a sense of my caste brought me to the performance. Now I realise that people are wrong in saying that appreciating Kathakali is difficult. I loved the form beyond the caste issues and want to see more performances of traditional plays.”

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Printable version | Jul 22, 2021 6:47:19 AM |

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