Monday, March 7, 2011


Long before I could understand the technicalities and complexities of Kathakali,  way before I could appreciate the various aspects of a performance, i was enamored by its myriad colours, costumes and make-up. All through my childhood, when the monthly Ernakulam Kathakali Club programmes were an inescapable part of my life, the most cherished part of the going for a performance was having a tour of the aniyara before the kali commenced.  I was always more interested in the goings-on backstage than what was being performed on stage. And while TDM Hall (where all Club performances were held) usually housed an elite crowd that raised eyebrows at kids running  around  and hushed them to be quiet, I made up for it at the temple performances, where I would run to the aniyara between scenes to see the Nalan or Karnan or Hanuman who had had us entranced for the last one hour dropping his divine aura the minute he stepped off stage and making a swift return to mundanity as removed his kireedam and fanned himself with his uttareeyam.

 The aniyara remains, to this day, a source of unending fascination, the unassumingly nondescript room where mere mortals turn into gods, demi-gods and damsels in distress. Everything in the aniyara still invokes a sense of awe- the performers huddled around a single naked bulb hanging low, appling outlandish hues of makeup made from completely organic substances; another performer taking a power nap while the chuttikkaran works on the labours over applying the perfect chutti, yet another veshakkaran sending a silent word of prayer to the heavens above as he puts on the final accessory to his costume- the kireedam.

Some shots of the aniyara from a kali held at the Koodalmanikyam Temple, Irinjalakuda last year:

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Making a Comeback

It is with quite a bit of trepidation that I venture back in here again, after letting this blog of mine languish for an unpardonable stretch of time -it’s been two and a half years since my last post! Let us just say that in the midst of chasing through the trials and tribulations of marriage, work and life in general, this sahrudayan bit of me got left behind somewhere along the way, gathering mold and dust as days went by. I thrust it firmly to the dark recesses of my mind, and told myself that the handful of regular readers I'd had would have also forgotten about my blog and moved on.

All until a few days back, when, in a desperate bid to clear up my blogger dashboard (I’d created more than half a dozen blogs in different times in my life, all of them relapsing to rigor mortis after the initial post or two!) I clicked on this long- forgotten link, only to find the (only) two posts in the blog chock-a-block with comments! Even though my heart soared for that fraction of a second when I saw the double-digits under each post, it quickly sank and lodged itself like a forlorn weight in my belly - most of it was spam, of every conceivable sort -Bollywoodgossip, eroticvideos, travelsites, and even a longer-than-my-post comment on blue cheese! However, after another half hour of painstakingly sifting through and deleting, what remained was a steady flow of comments that had kept coming in all through the last two years, up until yesterday... What can I say- I'm extremely thankful to you for dropping by, humbled by your extravagant praise, and grateful for the new lines of discussion at least some of you have opened within the comments forum. And of course, profuse apologies for not having replied to any of the comments earlier - it was presumptuous of me to think you'd forget this forum as quickly as I thought you would.

One of my remarks that seem to have sparked a heated debate within the readers is that I found Gopiasan's Karnan worthy of the kind of praise that I showered upon him in my post on Karnashapadam. TK Sreevalsan from Madras writes that Shri Kal.Gopi shows "a callow teenager's mindset",that the way he overacts in "next only to Sivaji Ganesan" and that Shri Vasu Pisharody is the only one today that as the "gravitas" to pull off such an act convincingly. Mr Rajkumar from Trishur, however, reacts to this statement with vehemence, stating that Shri Sharody is but "a normal actor", while Gopi asan is "great" and "beyond compare". Valsan SP tries to hold on to a middle ground ("I'm a great fan of Sharody Vasu's chitta as well as of Gopi asan's creativity), while Arungopal seems to stand firm by Shri Vasu Pisharody.

According to me, Gopiasan and Shri Vasu Pisharody are two actors of equal emminence who have carved their own distinct style in bringing a character to life. Shri Vasu Pisharody uses his bedrock of expansive knowledge and his fastidious adherence to chitta as a springboard to get under the skin of the character, while Gopiasan uses all the tools of his art with utmost flexibility to do the same.
Shri Vasu Pisharody may not stray from the strict boundaries of the art form, and may doggedly follow the same trajectory followed by his asans before him, but his in-depth knowledge of the katha and the character at hand lends an intensity and depth to his attams/manodharmams that is truly exceptional. It has been close to a decade since I saw Shri Vasu Pisharody’s Karnan last, but I’ll never forget the manodharmam in his scene with Bhanumati,"Do not let your mind wander like a wild horse- Rein it in firmly like a warhorse (padakuthira)”.
Gopi asan, on the other hand, pushes the boundaries of chitta, gives himself to the melodrama of the situation and thoroughly plays to the gallery, erupting in fury at one moment, weeping copious tears the other and using manodharmams that are sure to tug at the emotional strings of the audience as a whole.

I find it impossible to compare one with the other- each gives me complete satisfaction as a viewer, albeit in entirely different ways. Be it Shri Vasu Pisharody with his restrained and intellectual performance, or Gopiasan with his emotional, melodramatic one, both of them succeed in  infusing life and soul into the character. What really gets my gut, instead, is when supposedly senior actors like Kal. BalaSubrahmaniam, (inspite of his veshabhangi, grooming and experience) goes overboard both in terms of chitta and manodarmam, but still cannot manage to portray a character that is not soulless, shallow or fake.

Try as we might to dissect the performances of these stalwarts objectively, it remains that Kathakali is an artform, and like other form of art, can, in all truthfulness, only be viewed subectively. To each performer, his virtues and vices and to each viewer, his personal favourites. We can only but continue nit-picking until we learn to see and accept both sides in equal measure. So, let the debate go on... :)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008


Having been completely alienated from Kathakali ever since I left home a couple of months ago, I was indeed in for a pleasant surprise when I realised that my monthly visit home this time had coincided exactly with the Kathakali performance at our neighbouring temple, Punnakkal Bhagawathi Kshetram. To add to my delight, the story being staged was Karnashapadam, with the greatest artist of all time, Kalamandalam Gopi donning the role of Karnan. However, even though the performance couldn’t be called superlative by any standards, it was wholesome enough to nourish my Kathakali-starved soul to life again!

The story kicked off with Duryodhan’s thiranottam, followed by his scene with his consort, Bhanumathi. Kalanilayam Gopinath, who performed the role of Duryodhan, gave quite a lukewarm performance, with manodharmams that didn’t quite fit the character. For example, when Bhanumathi mournfully asserts, “poril bhavanu mrithyu neridum engilo veridum mama jeevan verenthu njan cheyvu”, instead of brushing it off with light-hearted arrogance and self-assurance that is typical of the character, Gopinathan’s Duryodhanan gets highly affronted, and feigns anger at Bhanumathi, refusing to make further conversation with her. Such aberrant manodharmams coupled with sloppy mudras made for quite a sluggish performance on his part.

However, Bhanumathi, played by Kalamandalam Shanmughan was indeed a class act. His character had both the maturity the role of a queen demanded, as well as the distress of a warrior’s wife fearing for her husband’s fate at the battlefield. With such amazing grip on his character, Shanmughan's Bhanumathi was the perfect match for Gopiasan’s Karnan in the beautiful padams that followed- sodari maharajni and Vatsalya varidhe…. The gradual dissolution of sorrow and fear, getting replaced by hope and joy at Karnan’s loyalty towards her king was enacted to perfection by Shanmughan, lending a rare breed of elegance to the character.

What can possibly be said about Kalamandalam Gopi…? Karnan is probably the most complex characters in Mahabharata and it takes great force of personality to portray him on stage with all the intricacies of the character. Gopiasan executed the role brilliantly with apt manodharmams that spoke about the turmoil of Karnan’s disturbed mind. The pakarnattom wherein in Kunti’s eyes inexplicably brim with tears when she chances upon Karnan by the wayside is an attom not usually done in Karnashapadam, but it struck a resonant chord with the audience, adding more depth and meaning to the story. He wove together all the snippets of Karna’s life that he enacted in such a way that the dilemma of his life was evident in the narrative itself –how his friend Ashwathama doubts his status as a charioteer’s son while Rajaguru Drona refuses to teach him the art of warfare as he is not a kshatriya-and how Parashurama, on the other hand, accuses him of being a kshatriya and curses him for having feigned his origin.

It is when Karnan is grappling with such unsettling thoughts that Kunti enters the scene. Played by Kalamandalam Rajashekharan, Kunti proved to be a complete fiasco in the otherwise moving scenes between Kunti and Karnan. Inspite of his age and experience, Rajashekhan’s Kunti was simply no match to Gopiasan’s Karnan and all he could do was to stand and whimper along while he latter exhilarated the audience with his rendition of the padam shravanakutharamathakiya vakyam. In the scenes that ensued, even though Gopiasan outdid himself with a powerhouse performance, he was accompanied by a damp and inanimate Kunti who gave a lopsided feel to the entire show.

It would be extremely unfair of me to wind up this piece without mentioning Kalanilayam Unnikrishnan and Babu Namboothiri who provided excellent vocal support to the performance along with Krishnadas on the Chenda and Prakash on the maddalam. Thus, I guess I can safely say that in spite of an apathetic Duryodhanan and a listless Kunti, Gopiasan’s Karnan, Shanmughan’s Bhanumathi and the vocal support made the show a truly spectacular one-one that I would play and replay in the back of my mind until I get to watch another performance again.

Sunday, October 7, 2007

Nalacharitham Nalam Divasam

Kathakali discovered long ago that the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets...In the Great Stories you know who lives, who dies, who finds love, who doesn't. And yet you want to know again.
- Arundhati Roy (The God of Small Things)

Kathakali aficionados would undoubtedly agree that Nalacharitham is one such attakatha that weaves romance, terror, despair and suspense into such a gripping tale, that the magic of the performance is never lost, however many times one might watch it. Thus, the excitement and expectations among the audience was almost palpable at the Changumpuzha Park last evening, when the final quarter of Nalacharitham was staged with some of the greatest artists of today, Kalamandalam Gopi, Margi Vijayakumar and Kalamandalam Shanmughan donning the roles of Nalan, Damayanti and Kesini respectively.

Not much need to be said about Gopiasan, who as always, gave a superlative performance, and took the show to a truly different level altogether. With Kathakali being the singular art form which allows its artists to personalise their characters according to their taste and understanding, it is perhaps only Gopiasan, who has breathed life into his characters in such a manner that made one feel that, had the same character played by anybody else, it would have seemed a mere travesty of the original.

However, Margi Vijay Kumar, one of the most acclaimed artists today in sthreevesham, failed to impress, making one wish wistfully of the Nalacharitham of yesteryears when Gopiasan’s Nalan had found his perfect match in the truly breathtaking Damayanti by Kottakkal Shivaraman. Even though Vijayakumar performed the initial scenes quite well, ably assisted by Shanmughan’s Kesini, he fell woefully short of the audiences expectations in the electrifying last scene which, when performed by stalwarts like Shivaraman asan, usually takes the audience to a truly cathartic level before divine intervention in the story takes it to a happy climax.

Nevertheless, Margi Vijayakumar’s non –impressive performance was more than compensated by Shanmughan’s Kesini. Easily the prettiest face in the business, Kalamandalam Shanmughan has risen in the ranks of the current generation of artists with his deep understanding and mature portrayals of characters. Restrained and subtle in his portrayal of Kesini, Shanmughan proved yet again, that a talented artist can turn around even the smallest part in a story and lend elegance and importance to that part.

The vocal support by Kottakal Narayanan and Narayanan Namboothiri was also far from satisfactory. Some may beg to differ, but for someone who has grown listening to Shankaran Embrathiri and Hyderali, I felt like the Narayanan duo simply took the magic away from the incredibly poignant lines of Unnai Varyiar. One could not but wish for a more soulful rendition, especially during the last scene, where it is actually the music that sets the mood of the scene.