The day after U R Ananthamurthy passed away, every Tom, Dick and Harry thought it imperative to declare their love for his writing on social media. If they had shared this enthusiasm for his work while he was still alive, as an artist and a man, he wouldn’t have suffered the self doubt which haunts every creative person. Why do we ignore the living and celebrate the dead? Why are we so afraid to give artistry the due it deserves when the artist is still breathing?
And once again I thought about Mali Madhavan Nair.
Some years ago I watched a Kathakali play titled Karnasapatham. It took me a long while to track down the libretto and it was there I found another work that moved me as much as Unayi Warrier’s Nalacharitham.
“Maranam varuvolam kurayillanuvolavum
Thiruthallum mamasneham paramapurushane.”
[As the maker be my witness. Until death, not by an atom would my surging wave like love for you ever cease] Who would have thought one of the most hated villains of Indian puranas Duryodhana would make such an oath of troth to Karna, the man whose loyalties were being tested. Nevertheless it is these and the deep philosophical tone of Karnasapatham written in 1966 that has perhaps made it one of the most performed plays of this time and age.
It is said that when someone asked Mali if he would write another Kathakali play, he is said to have responded with “I wrote this book with my blood; what is left?”
Here was a writer who in one work melded all that interested him and excited him. Mali as a man cherished personal relationships and so when he chose to write his play, he based it on one of the most significant but less lauded friendships. That of Karna and Duryodhana. It may have begun as an association of two desperate souls but somewhere it transcended into a true and abiding friendship that was unconditional and inviolable.
Among the Kathakali texts Nalacharitham is a great piece of writing on its own. Karnasapatham bears within the same gravitas but takes into account the shorter attention span of the rasika of this time and so Mali wrote his play to enhance the dramatic value rather than lose his audience.
It is perhaps the hardest thing to take a complex art form and create a play that while being accessible loses nothing in tonal or textural values or compromises on its complexity. Mali accomplished that by doing away with the thirasheela (curtain), and the shlokas that announce the end and beginning of a scene. He used only five characters doing away with needless roles and long sanskritized padams.
Mali wrote novels and children’s fiction. He wrote plays for the stage and the radio. He was the author of Kerala Sangeetham—a treatise on the origin and development of classical music in Kerala. And sadly, this brilliant man whose contribution to literature, music and dance is unrivalled is yet to receive the attention he so richly deserves.
Sometimes I wonder if it was because his talents were multi-pronged—a writer, a musicologist, a broadcaster, a journalist, his prowess extended beyond just one sphere and hence nobody owned him. Just as everyone knows Da Vinci for his Mona Lisa and ignores that he was also a man of many other brilliant parts, Mali too is remembered mostly for Karnasapatham. And yet to me, this play alone would have been reason to celebrate his genius. Is anyone in the echelons of music, dance and literature listening?
Anita Nair is a bestselling writer and columnist.
She can be reached at email@example.com