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Kathakali
by Dr Elsa Lycias Joel
2019-01-09 10:22:09
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Witnessing a Kathakali performance would be incomplete without family and friends.  With this in mind, we geared up as a team of four to witness the magic of Kathakali at Kalakshetra, Chennai. One of the best known dance forms of India, Kathakali originates from the pristine lands of Kerala. Greeted and welcomed by a great friend of mine Bruno Plasse, director, Alliance Française of Madras I was wondering what France has got to do with Kathakali. All I knew about Kathakali was its flamboyant costume and opulence.

indi001_400Comfortably seating ourselves inside Rukmini Auditorium, I got into people watching. People of all nationalities walked in with children in different ages and stages, anticipation and enthusiasm written vividly on their faces. This prompted me to read the pamphlet that was handed out to me at the entrance. To bring the Kathakali adaptation of the bard’s famous tragedy, directed by French choreographer Annette Leday and Australian playwright David McRuvie (of The Annette Leday/Keli Company), to the city for the first time seemed possible by like-minded sponsors who are big names in the city.  After Lady Annette’s brief introduction of the dance drama, it wasn’t a long wait to watch Peesapilly Rajeevan as King Lear, Kalamandalam Manoj Kumar as the fool, Sadanam Bhasi as Goneril and Kalamandalam Praveen as Cordelia, among others from Kerala on stage.

For me and my folks, it was a novel theatre experience. All characters came alive on stage one scene after the other. The nritya (dance) and abhinaya (expressions) of King Lear in a kathi vesham (representing villainous characters), the daughters Regan and Goneril in kari vesham (used for demonic characters), Cordelia in minukku vesham (symbolising gentleness), Kalamandalam Manoj Kumar as Lear’s fool and Sadanam Manikandan as King of France enchanted the audience. A quick glance around and I saw every one spell bound except a parent or two whispering something into a kid at their disposal. Power of the Kerala percussion that came alive with the chengilam (gong), ilattalam (cymbals), chenda and maddalam (both drums) handled adeptly by artistes not only supported a strong sense of rhythm but conveyed the dancers’ expressions rather unmistakably to novice audience as well. Supporting artistes did go an extra mile.

The more I delved into the characters, the more I got to know that every word recited by the singers in sanskritized Malayalam was interpreted by the dancers through mudras and navarasas (nine emotions). Being a student of Sadanam and Kalamandalam institutions from 1978 to 1984, Annette had made sure that the one hour and 45 minutes play was an exhilarating experience for all. I don’t know when exactly my two daughters who initially found the performance too slow got in the mould and began relating the story with the dancers’ emotional and fiery expressions in addition to checking on my emotions too with an occasional, “Are you crying!” any time a sad scene was acted out. I didn’t want to find out if my girls fell in love with the art or they were just updating themselves on the scenes in the pamphlet and performance on stage to fight boredom and make sure time flew by.

If ‘Romeo and Juliet’ has been brilliantly adapted for ballet and ‘Othello’ for opera then Annette Leday and David McRuvie have been blessed with an extraordinary prescience to predict that ‘King Lear’ is for Kathakali. During that one minute break between scenes, I could picture in my mind’s eye the passion with which Kodungallur Marumakan Raja would have penned the attakatha (story) for this team’s first performance in 1989.

Whatever, I felt elated watching King Lear in action trying to do justice to the last scene that was very emotional and knowing I am capable as a parent to have encouraged my daughters to tag along for an evening of Kathakali dance. Having performed at prestigious venues throughout the world the dancers were very much at ease embracing the adulation with grace and humility. As the artistes readily obliged to our request and posed with us after tiring hours of make –up and performance, I wondered if this is also the dance of the balanced ego. What more can you expect from seasoned dancers who have had the privilege to perform around the world including the Globe Theatre in London!

It’s distressing to know that this dance-drama had to be categorized under ‘the dying’ art form. Promoting or preserving an art form should begin at home. Ask any good dancer or singer or martial artists or sportsperson and we will know it all began at home. So, it’s the responsibility of parents to not only teach children about their roots but encourage them to learn a classical art form which in turn will prepare them for contemporary art forms too if at all they fall in love with any. An overwhelming sense of gratitude filled my heart for the kind invite extended to me and my family. And then I knew why too many parents had come with their children and sweated it out to help their children appreciate Kathakali.

Sick at heart over the tragedy that befell King Lear and his daughters, I reached home much to Navina Joseph’s relief because she was left with no choice but listen to my ‘if onlys and buts’ throughout our drive back home. Few unlucky ones at home who chose to skip the Kathakali performance had to be contended listening to my descriptive narration of the dance drama. It’s all good! Kathakali can make a spinning storyteller out of anybody.

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