Kathakali is riding the winds of change

Group of artists tries to make it more dramatic, interactive | New league of poets attempts to contemporise it with their verse
Kottakkal Devadas performing as Jarasandhan of Rajasooyam
Kottakkal Devadas performing as Jarasandhan of RajasooyamPhoto | Express

KOCHI : Kathakali, the classical dance that portrays stories from the epics through facial expressions, hand gestures and complex footwork, to the accompaniment of music, has for long remained an esoteric art form. However, a group of artists is trying to democratise the traditional dance drama — by making it more dramatic and interactive. This is besides a new league of poets attempting to contemporise it with their verse.

“Kathakali has the image of being abstruse. We have to make it more interactive to make it relevant,” says Kerala Kalamandalam dean K B Rajanand.

“Characters like the carpenter of Bakavadham have been created to make it enjoyable for people who are not well versed with the intricacies of the art. Recently, there is the trend of staging Sampoorana Ramayanam, incorporating various scenes from around eight plays based on the Ramayana. Sri Rama Pattabhishekam is being staged as part of Ramayana month in some places involving around 10 characters. There is more demand for Kuchelavritham as it is being staged as part of Bhagavata saptaham. I think bhakti is a way for kathakali to stay connected to the common man,” he noted.

A scene from Sundopasundam kathakali
A scene from Sundopasundam kathakaliPhoto | Express

Impressing with improv

Kottakkal Devadas, a star performer of red-beard characters, has been acclaimed for his improvised portrayal of Dushasana of Duryodhana Vadham, Sugreevan and Bali of Bali Vadham, Kali of Nalacharitham, Narasimham of Prahlada Charitham and Jarasandha of Rajasooyam. His performances as the carpenter of Bakavadham and Mallan of Keechakavadham have won him much praise. “He mimicked a crow while playing Sugreevan of Bali Vadham recently. It was mind blowing. While performing the visit of Dushasana to Indraprastha, he demonstrates the performance of percussion artists, which was also mesmerising,” says Sivaprasad, a kathakali enthusiast based in Gujarat, who regularly visits Kerala to witness performances.

“While improvising, one must ensure that the performance does not spoil the dimensions of the situation and the character. The art form should change according to the time and the taste of people. The youth never used to enjoy watching kathakali. Now, more young women are coming forward to learn the dance form. Even if they don’t continue as artists they will at least be admirers of the art. Thadi purappadu, the synchronised performance of red-beard characters, has gained much popularity. It was introduced by Nelliyode Vasudevan Namboothiri in 2008. Such changes will make kathakali more interesting,” says Devadas.

Among the new plays is Gurudeva Mahatmyam, written by Kalamandalam Ganesan. If kathakali was seen as the art of Brahmins and Nairs, Gurudeva Mahatmyam has taken the art to the Ezhava community, as it is based on the life of Sree Narayana Guru. The play is being staged in the southern districts at temples owned by the SNDP Yogam.

“It tells the story of the Guru’s fight against social evils and the installation of a Shiva idol at Aruvippuram temple. It has had such an emotional connect that people even approach me to touch my feet seeking blessings,” says Pallipuram Sunil, who has donned the role of the Guru on more than 50 stages.

A scene from Mohini Vijayam kathakali
A scene from Mohini Vijayam kathakaliPhoto | Express

‘Caste bias misleading’

“The allegation of caste discrimination in kathakali is misleading. There are artists from all communities. Kalamandalam John runs a kathakali school at Cheruthuruthi and Kalamandalam Ebin Babu is a prominent actor in central Kerala. He has been actively promoting plays like Magdalana Mariam and Divya Karunya Charitham,” says Kalamandalam Prasanth, who has played the Guru on more than 100 stages.

A new kathakali play was staged at Pallipuram Thiruvairanikulam Kalathil temple on May 5 which was widely appreciated. Sundopasundam is based on the story of Sunda and Upasunda, two powerful asura brothers who shared a strong bond. They spent years in penance and received a boon from Brahma that their death can only be at each other’s hands. Brahma proceeds to create Thilothama, a celestial nymph, and the two brothers fall for her beauty and kill themselves in the fight to win her hand.

“I wrote Sundopasundam during the pandemic. The story is dramatic and has more theatrical impact as two kathi (evil) characters perform simultaneously on stage. I am working on two more verses based on Jalandharan and Mayoorasandesam by Kerala Varma Valiya Koil Thampuran,” says Pallipuram K Ramachandran, author of the dance drama.

Fresh approaches

Among the new stories, Mali’s Karna Sapadham is a huge hit while Vaikom Rajasekharan’s Arjuna Vishadavrutham is gaining popularity. Mohini Vijayam, a new story also penned by Rajasekharan, explores the ragas in Carnatic music that have not been used in kathakali till date. It speaks about Bhasmasura who was granted the boon reduce people to ashes by merely touching their head. The story in which Vishnu incarnates as Mohini to eliminate the asura is the basic theme. The verses are rich in poetic quality and there is enough space for the artist to display his talent. “There is a reluctance among kathakali enthusiasts to accept new stories. But if the story is rich in poetry and has musical quality, it will survive. I have taken care to make the story unique by providing much space for improvisation,” says Rajasekharan.

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