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.


bansuri said...

good reappraisal.. beautiful presentation and photographs..
Wish u get to watch more and write more...:)

nair said...

Very Good.
C.Ambujakshan Nair

Haree | ഹരീ said...

Great! :)
A few points.

• I agree with you. What you told about Duryodhana is absolutely correct. These days, artists often forget his status; he's a king, whatever he do!

• "...Kunti’s eyes inexplicably brim with tears when she chances upon Karnan by the wayside..." - I think this is something Gopi Asan usually perform. He got a couple of Manodharmattams for this section and he randomly picks them.

• I should actually blame the organizers. Kalamandalam Gopi & Kalamandalam Rajasekharan; I don't think they will perform well together. ;)

• It's nice to hear that the music part went well. Kalamandalam Krishnadas, he's always good. :) 'Prakash', I am not familiar with this name!

• Nice shots; especially those of Gopi Asan. You captured the correct moments. Technically, still a lot to improve. :)

Anonymous said...

ammu chechi,

you have done a commentable job!!keep it up!!!


bird said...

Hi Ammu,
I could see your article today only. It was written in your own inimitable great style. Good photos
But, I have one thing to say. Gopi Asan was great, but the way he was treating other artists on stage was not at all fair. Once on stage, there is no asan and shishyan, it is only the characters.
Shanmughan was too good in the role of Bhanumathi. His face expressions were real treat to watch.
Ammu, write similar articles.

Srikumar K said...

The appraisal is really good. Gopi Asan was great. I have never seen a good Duryodhana in Karna Shapadham for the last 40 years. It is a low focus character which just will not and can not shine. Even the theranottam is usually done purposely in low profile. And if it shines it may take off the shine from Karna. This is a predicament of Kathakali.

vrinda said...

jo chechi

grt writing.am a fan of kathakali myself though completely unaware of the technicalities.
was a pleasure to read ur post....


Rajneesh Kiran said...

Good Write up.
Photo of Shanmughan - Is it from Karnna shapatham or from some Nalacharitham onnam divasam?? Expression doesnt seem to be fitting Karnnashapatham and back ground also different from other photos

Jyothi said...

Thanks for the comments!!!

@haree : U manage to hit the nail on the head, everytime you deconstruct my blogs... Thanks for the support! And as for the photos, i still have a LONG way to go!

@ bird aka golman : True, gopiasan did show his displeasure to the idiosyncracies that were being shown on stage, but did you notice that he had problems only with Duryodhanan (who gave an unsatisfactory performance) and not with Bhanumathi (who played the part to perfection)?? I feel that his neerasam was well-founded and well-expressed too!

@ rajneesh : I confess! The Shanmughan pic is from a Nalacharitham Onnam divasam performance which had happened earlier. I put it in coz i didnt manage to get any good picture of Bhanumathi this time!

Shwetz said...

Hey Jyothi,
Nt been a follower of Kathakali by any stretch of imagination.. But just wanted to say that after reading your reviews, would love to go for a perforance with you..Only to hear u deconstruct it.
Excellent writing!

Ganesh-Iyer said...

Your write-ups and photos are very nice

വികടശിരോമണി said...

ഹൊ!ഇങ്ങനേം ഒന്ന് ഇവിടുണ്ടായിരുന്നോ?എഴുത്തും ഫോട്ടോയുമൊക്കെ നന്നായിട്ടുണ്ട്.ഞാനിതു കാണാൻ കുറേ വൈകിയെന്നു മാത്രം.
ഞാൻ നടത്തുന്ന കഥകളിബ്ലോഗ് കണ്ടിരുന്നോ?

-സു‍-|Sunil said...


താങ്കളുടെ ബ്ലോഗ് കഥകളി ബ്ലോഗുകൾ എന്ന അഗ്രിഗേറ്ററിൽ സ്ഥാനം പിടിച്ചിട്ടുണ്ട്‌. ദയവായി പ്രസ്തുത അഗ്രിഗേറ്റർ ഉപയോഗിക്കുകയും ഞങ്ങളെ പ്രോത്സാഹിപ്പിക്കുകയും ചെയ്യുക.

കൂടുതൽ ഇവിടെ എഴുതിയിട്ടുണ്ട്‌.


Anonymous said...

Nice blog you have.

Anonymous said...

For all the grandeur Kathakali has, Karnashapatham, to me, is almost unwatchable -- more so if the protagonist in the story-play is portrayed by the one and only Kalamandalam Gopi. A callow teenager's mindset this epoch-making maestro generally has doesn't suit well when it comes to essaying a character like Karna who suffers from existential pangs. It has always amused me when Gopi's Karnan gets involved in cheap quarrels with Dusshasana in the first scene and then suddenly withdraws into a reflective mood in the following scene. Later, the way he overacts when Karnan gets to learn that Kunti is, in fact, his mother, is next only to Sivaji Ganesan. Well, all Karnans in this Mali "classic" have become so. The only tolerable Karnan I once saw was Kalamandalam Vasu Pisharody's. He has gravitas ('nila' or 'nela' as Kathakali aesthetes call it) and is sweetly restrained in his histrionics (in whatever measure he has it). For all the surprise this comment of mine might invoke, I must say I feel Gopi Asan (on a good day -- or night, rather) of late is best suited to enact the classy Kottayam plays. Even his celebrated Nalan/Bahukan is often shoddy (though, nostalgia-ridden, we all still prefer to watch him over and above the rest).

T K Sreevalsan

Rajkumar said...

What Shri. Srivalsan says. I canot follow his attitude. Sri. Vasu Pisharody is a normal Kathakali actor. His kathakali is normal. Gopi is great. How he can compare Sri. Gopi with Sri.Pisharody.
Gopi asan's silly attams, because of his more intractions with south artists. In the world no kathakali actor is there to compare Gopi asan. Srivalsan please compare any one with Sri.Gopi.
(Rajkumar, Trichur)

Anonymous said...

Hi Gopi,
I never said (did I?) Vasu Pisharody is comparable to Kalamandalam Gopi. Gopi Asan is one of the most remarkable actors of our times -- he is a living Kathakali legend (I needn't tell you this, right?)
I only said I find this Karnasapatham somewhat silly Kathakali, and Gopi Asan's Karnan even sillier. And that the only "sahikkable" Karnan I ever saw is Vasu Pisarody's. Simple!
Hailing myself from central Kerala like you, I've noticed it's fashionable to blame any fault of Kathakali artistes on "Thekkan" influence. Nothing is more stupid. Gopi asan has become a historical figure because he could break the cold grammar of Kalluvazhi and brilliantly adapt some good elements from Travancore.
T K Sreevalsan

Anonymous said...

Hi Rajkumar,
Sorry to have addressed you as Gopi -- it was a slip that happened in my hurry to reply (just as I was leaving office for the day).
I hope my point is clear. There's no question of comparison, my friend. Comparing Gopi with Sharody Vasu is like contrasting Krishnan Nair with Ramankutty Nair -- both, again, my childhood heroes. One is about the beauty of talent, the other is a purist's delight. Such personalities are always complementary; they help any classical art maintain its balance and showcase its varied richness.
T K Sreevalsan

Anonymous said...

Jothi Varma,
The photos added is very very nice.
Is Karnasapatham, Kachadevayani and all Kathakali?
Why you are spending your valuable time for these stories.
Valsan.. SreeValsan!
Only Vasupisharody is elite for Karna. Very good. It is Your opinion. You are very cheaper than MALI.
How Mr. Rajasekharan is suit for Sri.Gopiasan. Never . Only one personality Sri. Kottakkal Sivaraman. Then WHO?
No doubt. Sri. Kalluvazhi Vasu.

Kalamandalam Gopi: All kathakali artists trying to imitate Sri. Kalamndalam Gopi.
Who imitates Vasupisharody. Vasupisharody is an alternate to Sri.Gopi asan.

jinu said...

Came thru ur profile wen I was searchinge abt Karnashpadham..Good rite up..

jyothisethu said...

hello jyothi,
i am another jyothi, who accidently visited your blog when i went through my routine visit of the blogs created by artists, ie. painters...
i don't know much about kathakali except the stories...
i wrote this to share my happiness i had while enjoying the pictures which accompanied your posts...

Anonymous said...

Dear Jyothi Varma, I have noted your comments towards Shri Srivalsan that, everyone in Kathakali field imitates Shri Kalamandalam Gopi and no one follow Shri Vasu Pisharody hence Shri Vasu is only an alternate for Shri Gopi.

And who is the alternate for Shri Vasu Pisharody then?

I believe such comments do not sound better, if it is by a matured observer.

Shri Sharody Shishya of Shri Vazhenkada Kunju Nair, has a different style of performing even the "Manodharma" (which I appreciate his strictness to maintain the "Chitta" which results the character shines better) that hardly any one does.

Where as Shri Gopi proved his skill that his own ideas (Manodharma) which could be reflected on the character as performed better.

I request Mr Rajkumar, reaction on Mr Srivalsan's comments was unwelcome since I trust comparing the characters performed by different artists on the stage is not an "aparadha" if the artists are from same generation. Also it helps a Kathakali viewer to be authentic.

Its doubtful if any body performs in today’s Kathakali field who handles any characters (Nalan/Bahukan, Rugmangadan, Arjunan, Ravanan/Narakasuran, Brahmanan, Kattalan etc) as simple as Shri Vasupisharody does....(reason behind that I identified is, the strictness that Shri Sharody follows on CHITTA).

Here am not for an argument with any of my friends, all above are my suggestions.
Also am a grate fan of Shri Vasu Pisharody. At the same time a lover of Shri Gopiashan's creativeness.

Valsan SP

Anonymous said...

kathakali veshangal valare chittayode avatharippikkunnathu Shri Vasu Pisharody thanne. athinu doubt venda.

Anonymous said...

Somebody (anonymous) in this discussion wonders whether Karnasapatham and Kachadevayani can be Kathakali at all. Now, this is a curious argument. A funny observation. If you stetch such a line to the maximum, you can ask whether anything other than 'Salajjoham' in Kalakeyavadham or Tapassattam in Ravanolbhavam is Kathakali. It's such a silly question. The Kalluvazhi-Taliban people, after all, end most of their Kathakali nights in Valluvanad with the hooi-pooy Kiraatham. If that story-play can be Kathakali, so can be Harischandra Charitam. Come on, talk sense.
T K Sreevalsan

Anonymous said...

Gopi asan's karnan gives more Dramativ effect, but Sharody Vasu gives us a real Kathakali effect.