Monday, 27 September 2010

Amazing Kathakali Performance

Today we watched a truly scintillating performance of Kathakali. It was a show conducted by Kala Chethana - a company that is trying hard to sustain the art of Kathakali. More can be learnt about them from their website

The show featured Padmashree Kalamandalam Gopi - the legend. The performance was amazingly graceful and dignified. The whole stage was lit up by flamboyant colours!

The performance was about "Daksha Yaaga". Some of us have studied it as part of our Sanskrit course conducted by Sringeri Sura Saraswathi Sabha. Daksha and his wife find an abandoned child, name it Sathi (aka Daakshaayani) and raise it. Later on Sathi marries Shiva himself! But, Shiva, perhaps worried about the delayed start to his honeymoon, leaves the wedding hall without formally informing Daksha. Obviously Daksha is offended. He rethinks about the wedding and concludes that it was probably not a good match - with Shiva being rude, care-of-cemetery etc. So he conducts a Yaaga (probably to vent out his anger) and doesn't invite Shiva and Sathi. Having found out about the Yaaga, Sathi aspires to attend the same. But Shiva predicts Daksha's angry reaction and suggests Sathi to avoid the visit. But Sathi goes anyway! No surprise there.

Then Shiva's cribs! I liked this part where Shiva shares his frustrations with the audience. He seemed to say "And she went. Did she listen to me, Oh no! I wasted so much energy trying to drive some sense into her! And guess who will return crying!"

Exactly as guessed by Shiva, Sathi returns insulted by Daksha, of course crying. As per original story, two daemons - Veerabhadra and Rudrakaali are born out of Sathi's tears. In this show also, Shiva summons these two, who behead Daksha on Shiva's order. Post beheading, perhaps on Sathi's request, Daksha is granted life, and, just for fun perhaps, a goat's head! After a dancing plea by the goat headed Daksha, Shiva restores Daksha's glory - I think. But in this performance, Shiva just watched goat headed Daksha's dance performance and responded with his own dance routine! And left it there. Poor goat headed Daksha simply stood with his hands folded - till the last moment - until we all finished applauding and picked our coats to leave!

Truly it was an evocative, powerful and a spiritual experience. There was no language barrier as the story was well introduced by Kalamandalam Barbara Vijayakumar before the beginning of the show. A lot is communicated through Mudras (gestures). Kalamandalam Vijayakumar’s performance as Daksha's wife and Sathi was equally superb! Drummers took us to a totally different world. It is difficult to say what raised the pulse of the audience - was it the drum beat or the Kathakali moves. Drum beats matched the mood of the moment and artists' movements matched drum beats. Entire performance was woven into a cohesive story by the two Bhagavathars - whose voices were so nice!

After the show, we had the privilege of venturing into the backstage to say hello to the legendary performers. They were quite friendly and very approachable. We learnt a bit more about Kala Chethana, Vijayakumar, his team and their teamwork in packing and unpacking seemingly endless bits of small and big items - all colourful. We also learnt that Barbara is the world's only female Kathakali Chutti (make up artiste) By the way, Barbara speaks Malayalam quite fluently!

Just think about it. The team arrives at the location, with an unbelievable variety (and quantity) of dress materials and an idea of a story matching the audience profile. They unpack into narrow dressing rooms - which could be spread across several floors. They make last minute adjustments to characters depending on physical space available to put on the make up. (For example: They wanted to bring on a peacock to the stage but there was no space in the green room to make a peacock) Then they get ready - patiently answering those who have decided to attend pre-show workshop. Then on they get into the act and perform flawlessly! Then off to remove the make up, pack-up, sign-off - all these while meeting curious people like us backstage! And the whole story repeats in another UK city or town just a few miles away and 24 hours apart. The whole thing runs as per Barbara's orchestration of her 18 months plan for a tough and demanding 3 months.

And how many Indians attend their events? Less than 20. And how many of them meet the performers to say Thanks! May be 12. Shocked? Yes, we too were. There is no shortage of Malayalis in and around Bristol. There could be around 500 Malayali families in about 50 mile radius - as per some of my friends that number is 2000. For Jayaram Show held in May/June – Colston Hall was packed. People had arrived in bus loads from nearby places. I don't remember seeing so many well dressed Indians at one place since then. People flocked to Mohan Lal’s show in similar numbers if not in similar fashion. Both events charged a hefty entry fee (30£ and 50£ I think) compared to this Kathakali show – whose gate fee was just 13£ - including free pre-event workshop. And, we got subsidised tickets!

Backstage, Vijayakumar and Barbara shared their experience with attracting more Indians to their events. On the way home, we were wondering about NRI apathy towards our own culture; people's choice to ignore hat too performed by legends!

It is still not too late. Kala Chethana will be touring UK till November end – conducting almost daily shows. The schedule is available here:

If you are based in the UK, I urge you to go and watch this show. It will be a feast for your senses.