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.