Thursday, October 20, 2005

An article by my Brother...

Kalakeyavadhom in Kottayam
The first kathakali performance that I would like to recount is one I call, Kalakeyavadhom( The Killing of Kalakeya) in Kottayam. It was the summer of either ‘94 or ‘95. I was a young student in Engineering College and I had just returned home after the extended stint of cramming and regurgitating, customary with every semester exam session. A nice juicy kali ( Kathakali performance) was what I needed to off load all of that advanced mathematics and Z transforms junk that I had stuffed in my head. It was time for my cousin’s kathakali class with her instructor Gopi (Kalanilayam Gopinath). Gopi was a fine, talented and upcoming young artist at that time and his reply was “yes there is a fine kali tomorrow but the problem is that it is in Kottayam.” Let me explain the problem part. My home is in Sreekrishnapuram Palakkad district. Kottayam is far far away, especially for an unemployed young student. My father, while he did not disapprove of the occasional play, definitely had strong opinions on the priorities in the life of a youth. But maybe because I had just returned from exams, he didn’t bar me from going and merely frowned while he handed me the necessary road-trip expenses.

I eagerly asked Gopi the details of the trip and was overjoyed to discover that it was going to be Kalakeyavadhom but wonder of wonders, this wasn’t going to be the customary all-nighter. This one was actually going to be held during the day. None other than the grand master Keezhpadam Kumaran Nair was to be Arjunan. His student and expert Naripetta was to be Mathali( charioteer of Indra). Gopi was to be the second Arjunan. Kalamandalam Gangadharan was to be the main singer. Unfortunately I do not remember any more of the cast but just the above mentioned were enough to have me salivating. And then things got better. Gopi said we would have to first stop by Trissur on our way down and pick up a couple more of the artists who were performing that evening at Trissur club, and then continue to Kottayam after that performance was over. Trissur club was having an Ravonothbhavam (The Rise/ awakening (?) of Ravana. First Utbhavam, then Kalakeyavadhom - what more could a Kathakali-lover want?

We arrived in the evening at the club. Ravanotbhavam has always been a favorite of mine. The artiste had curiosity value because he had recently returned from a long exile in North India. I remember that he was pretty good if unspectacular to my limited knowledge. Gopi was not hired for this show but in typical kathakali fashion he made himself useful with the props and equipment and other odd jobs. The club shows are typically ticketed affairs, but I was hushed through as accompanying the artists. That was another feature of this whole trip. I was a fly on the wall. I was a silent spectator watching how the artists got together, traveled, co-operated, ate, prepared and performed and for one day, I was part of their routine.

It was late into the night by the time that performance was over and then Gopi, myself and a couple of other artists made our way to the transport bus stand. Each artiste had his trusted shoulder bag with the implements of his trade. For the actors that was confined to perhaps their murukkan chellam ( the little box containing betel leves, limepaste, and betel nuts) and a personal set of “nakham” the silver nails on the left hand. But one of the artists was a maddalakkaran ( maddalam artiste) and he was lugging along his trusted maddalam( percussion instrument).
The time being well past 12 in the night, I expected an easy journey in a half empty bus. But wonder of wonders all of Trissur seemed to want to travel to Kottayam at that ungodly hour. We let the first couple of buses go by and then decided there was no option but to force our way into the next one maddalam and all. It was no mean feat but we managed to do so somehow or the other. The bus was packed tight. Everybody was tired and sweating and tempers were short. I hadn’t bargained for this. Oh well nothing could be done at this point. The best solution was to bring out the handy Walkman and listen to some music. After a couple of hours, I lucked out and managed to wiggle a seat. I offered to give it up to Gopi or his friends but they refused. So then, I offered them my walkman to at least lighten the journey. I remember the cassette I had that day. It was a particularly impressive concert by S. Kalyanaraman with Lalgudi Jayaraman I believe on the violin. S. K had a couple of impressive pieces in that concert including his trademark Mohanarama in Mohanam and then a brilliant Shanmukhapriya in which he did some sruthibhedam. All in all a brilliant piece! Gopi fitted one of the headphones in one ear and gave the other on to his friend. People all around, both sitting and standing, like exhausted temple elephants, were dozing away. Every now and then one of them (Gopi or cohort) would burst into an “AHA” or “OHO”, oblivious to the hostile stares that those exclamations would elicit from their fellow weary travelers. Smilingly watching them, I dozed off myself. Thankfully they too managed to get seats before reaching Kottayam. (Perhaps an illustration of the troubles that a junior level artiste undergoes in reaching his destination. Imagine performing all night after a strenuous journey like this one, and then undergoing a similar trip back home, in time for the next performance).

We reached Kottayam and after a short nap and an early breakfast, the kali started. What can I say about Kalakeyavadhom? Naripetta Namboothiri was Mathali( Lord Indra's charioteer). I remember listening to Gangadharan ( the main singer) doling out “Mathale” in the scene between Indran and Mathali. I remember not being a fan of the Gangadharan waver in the initial days of my kathakali following experience. But by this time, I was able to discern the music and the “kathakalitham”( the essence of Kathakali) that were cloaked and perhaps even accented by that waver of his. The master was in rare form. And I eagerly lapped it up. After “Maathale”, I was treated to Naripetta’s ( a famous artiste) version of the “theroottal”( the assembling, preperation for a journey of the chariot).

Let me digress at this point for the benefit of those not familiar with this play. Arjuna had just received the “paashupathasthram” from Shiva after Kiraatham( The story of Shiva in the guise of a hunter). Shiva had rooted out the pride that was the only speck in the personality of the hero Arjuna and left him as close to perfection as possible in a human. At this juncture, Indra decided to invite his son to the heavently abode and in the first scene calls his charioteer Mathali and tells him “ My son Arjuna is a great hero. Please go with my chariot and bring him to heaven”. Mathali agrees and in the next scene, creates a chariot.
This is a strange theatrical creation in Kathakali because obviously nobody creates their chariot from scratch just when they want to go somewhere. But the effect when handled by someone as talented and aware of space and dimensions as Naripetta is breathtaking. He builds each pillar of the chariot, then fits the platform, then the wheels and flag post, then decorates the chariot with flowers and festoons and then hitches the horses. Once complete, he proceeds to Arjuna’s presence. Arjuna is shown in all splendor. Mathali proceeds to greet him with effervescent praise. Arjuna in true heroic humility declines the praise saying that it is the trait of fools to be swayed by flattery. This padam called "Salajjoham" is another wonderful implementation in kathakali. The message being conveyed by the words is simple and is what I described above. But their implementation through the mudras and the choreography of the scene and the music and the thaalam (rhythm) is to convey the “Veera” rasa or valor of Arjuna. As the mudra for Lajja blends into the one for hum into the one for thava into chatu into vachana and so on and finally flows into the stately hops of “alambhavam” the effect is complete and you are then watching “Veera rasam” manifested on stage!!!

Arjuna is escorted to Indira’s presence, he meets his step mother Indrani and dances the ashtakalaasam ( a series of footwork that is a visual delight) in ecstasy. He travels around the heavens and describes the various sights of heaven for our benefit in great detail.

At this point of time Kalakeya attacks the heaven with his demonic hordes and then you have the fight scene where Arjuna comes to the rescue of the devas and kills the demon hordes.
Keezhpadam ( another famous artiste) was wonderful in his presentation of Arjunan. His Swargavarnana ( description of the heavens) was a little different from the usual perhaps but my memory fails me as to the actual details. By the time the Swargavarnana was over, I was in a daze. The whole trip was an adventure. I had been fortunate to have more fun than I thought possible. I don’t even remember the half-dazed, trip back home from Kottayam. In fact everything from after that swargavarnana is a haze blurring into the background of all the highs before. I must have slept upright in an uncomfortable seat of a rickety KSTRC bus, but I can only imagine the blissful smile that my face must have worn.


yet another1 said...

lovely, lovely article! though i don't follow kathakali much, i can relate to the emotions - i feel like that when watching a really good bharatanatyam or kathak performance.

just a thought - anita nair's latest novel "Mistress" is supposedly based heavily on Kathakali. Would love to read a book review from you on this book.


Silent Melody said...

Hey Ardra, this was a lovely article. Though I do not know anything about Kathakali or any classical dance for that matter, I enjoyed the article.

And your brother's writing somehow reminded me of The Motorcycle Diaries. :-)

aria said...

Delightful read ardra.. skillfully navigates through mythology .. dance postures ..n various emotions. I dunno much abt Kathakali either .. but learnt something here.

SeaSwallowMe said...

fabulous read, ardra. i'm not sure i understood any more about kathakali after reading your brother's article than yesterday - but what struck me is your brother's sheer enthusiasm that comes thru loud & clear.