Kathakali fests are not new to people. Whether it is to packed audiences or not, artists always got to perform to audiences who come in to watch out of the sheer love for the art form, from different parts of the state.
Last week, the Kathakali enthusiasts of Kozhikode sat through ‘Karnasapatham,’ performed as part of ‘Manjuthara 2015,’ at the Padmasree Kalyanamandapam. It was organised by the Sooryasopanam Cultural Trust.
What most people in the audience must not have realised is that they were watching the first and only all- woman Kathakali group in the world performing in front of them.
The group comprised Parvathi Menon as Duryodhanan, Kavya G Nair as Bhanumathi, Geetha Varma as Karnan, Radhika Ajayan as Dushasanan and Pullur Jayasree as Kunthi. The backing vocals too were by Palanad Deepa and Meera Ram Mohan.
The group, the Tripunithura Kathakali Kendram Ladies Troupe, was formed in 1975 when not just Kathakali, but performing arts were not an accepted profession or pastime for women.
“We were all students of Kathakali doyen Padmasree Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair. The first performance of the troupe was ‘Kalyanasaugandhikam.’ Even the chenda was performed by a female artist,” says Geetha Varma, one of the senior performers in the troupe now. Her daughter Aarcha Gowri Varma is also a performer with the troupe.
Kathakali was an art that belonged only to upper class men. Even today, this remains the rule with many senior Kathakali artists. About defying the rules and breaking stereotypes, Geetha Varma says, “We had to face plenty of criticism. We were criticised only because we were an all-woman Kathakali group, and most of the time it came from people who never watched us perform.”
The criticism and the orthodoxy built around Kathakali were so strong that the group was recognised and invited for a performance by Kalamandalam only in the year 2000.
Parvathy Menon, also a senior artist in the troupe, remembers how they saw a group of men disappointed when they saw the artist who will be playing Dushasanan.
“It was during one of our performances in Kollam. We were resting after our make-up, when some men came in and sounded very disappointed when they saw that it was a woman who was going to play Dushasana, but after our performance, their opinion changed.” About the changing audience they have performed to over the years, Parvathy says, “The number of youngsters who come to watch Kathakali has definitely gone up over the years. But for performances which last through the night, which also is very rare now, we find very little audience.”
The troupe, which has only three of its founding members active, currently has women from across Kerala who join in to perform from time to time. They did not restrict themselves to Kerala and decided to cross borders and oceans with their performances.
Sharing an unforgettable experience, Geetha Varma explains how they silenced an entire group of audience at one of their performances in the United States of America. Back in 2002, we got an opportunity to perform at the Smithsonian Institution. Radhika Nandakumar, who is one of the founding members, performed a demo of the 9/11 incident. We asked the audience whether they understood anything. What we received was utter silence. For a minute we thought may be they did not understand anything. That is when we heard them whispering ‘it’s 9/11.’ That was an unforgettable experience.”