If somebody had mentioned to me, in the course of a conversation that Delhiites would be treated to a six-evening projection of a full Kutiyattam performance of Surpanakhankam, the second act of Shaktibhadra’s Sanskrit play Ashcharyachudamani, by Nepathya, on the fountain lawns of the IIC, I would have dismissed it as a pipe dream! Organised by Sahapedia the open line resource on art and culture in India, in keeping with the long- nourished idea of its founder Sudha Gopalakrishnan, with the cooperation of Seher, the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and the IIC’s venue, dream became a reality. It was a totally different water-proof world created on the fountain lawns. The crescent moon shed its soft light, as the very traditionally laid out stage saw two front ends marked by flowering banana trees, with a top decorated border running across with coconut fronds and strung jasmine flowers hanging at regular intervals, and in the centre was the large lamp with three wicks symbolising Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva.
The only remnant of ancient Sanskrit theatre, Kutiyattam in Kerala, traditionally exclusive to the Chakyar community and performed only in the temple Kootambalam, has during the last sixty years or so, as a secular form, become part of proscenium presentation. Spectacular theatre created in the small space in front of the accompanying drummers, the actor here through an elaborate vocabulary of gestures and strongly mapped out facial expressions interprets a selected verse from the playwright’s text, building through an unhurried evolving mode of enactment, a whole imaginary universe comprising layers of meaning and interpretation of the text. The verse is recited in a sing-song manner (called raga) by the actor playing a specific role (if it applies to him) or by the person seated at the side providing talam on cymbals. This aspect of the actor’s craft also demands intense training for developing lung power and breath control. The ticking clock cannot dictate this art of improvised elaboration- and a whole day’s performance can revolve round just one verse! Very different from other art forms, the non- linear narrative sees the actor, as narrator or as a specific character, generally occupying performance space in prolonged solo spells, moving freely between time zones, past, present and future- using techniques like Nirvahanam (retrospective recap of past events) and Anukramam (description of past events), taking on several roles (prakaranatyam) male and female. Just taking a side rim of his skirt and tucking it into the opposite side of the waist makes the actor a female character, while taking the tasseled ‘uttareeya’ and knotting it in the front at the waist signifies a male character. Verses from ancient Sanskrit texts interpreted by actors living in a contemporary world, result in a curious tradition/ modernity mix - the ancient form and language, evoking characters resonating with the present world - totally conceived by the actor’s creativity, operating in complete artistic freedom to interpret the chosen verse. It is obvious that even Shaktibhadra was troubled by the treatment of Surpanakha. Class distinctions are felt in the language, with women’s words in Prakrit and demon Surpanakha in undisguised form speaking a crude Malayalam. A unique feature, providing the pulse for the entire performance is the accompaniment on the large copper drum- Mizhavu, with an oxhide top (sacred and placed on a stand without being allowed to touch the floor) -the percussionist occupying a high stool at the back. Mizhavu playing (traditionally by the Nambiar community) of phenomenal expertise produces multifarious tones of rhythm and sound directing buildup of mood through rhythm, adding a pulsating urgency to the performance.
In this world created entirely by the actor, the centrality of the body, with the often seated actor using just the upper part of the body to communicate, demands years of disciplining and immersion in characters, making Kutiyattam an art form only for the totally committed. This masterpiece of theatre miraculously surviving and which the UNESCO has recognized as an intangible heritage of humanity, has despite committed audiences in Kerala been reduced to bits and sequences of an act rather than a full play.
The six- day performance revolved round the well known episode from Ramayana’s Aranyakanda during Rama’s exile in the forest, with both he and Sita, attended by brother Lakshmana happily passing their days in Panchavati, when Surpanakha, Ravana’s sister, searching for a husband, loses her heart to the handsome Rama. Disguised as beautiful Lalita, she approaches Rama to accept her proposal. Rejecting her offer, Rama sends her to brother Lakshmana. Finally angry at being rejected and used as a source of fun, Surpanakha assumes her real form and abducts Lakshmana who mutilates her. The characters (each played by many actors) are not the idealized Valmiki epic prototypes. Rama, vulnerable and class conscious, treating Surphanaka with such scant respect, makes the smug observation that he knew she would be rejected by Lakshmana too, prompting Sita’s shrewd query on why then he sent her to Lakshmana, reducing her to utter helplessness. One wonders , If Rama realized the consequences, had celibate Lakshmana living away from his wife succumbed to her charms? On the other hand, magnanimous in not blaming Kaikeyi for his exile, Rama even mollifies Lalita who asks if he considers her a lowly woman for proposing to him, with the example of even Ganga in Siva’s locks embracing the sea with several wives! The same Rama insensitively complains to Sita that having to protect her hamstrings his carrying out his father’s wishes. He helplessly watches Surpanakha abduct Lakshmana and carry him away, agonizing on losing his brother. Lakshmana emerges as a stronger character.
After a fine introductory talk by scholar David Shulman, one witnessed city audiences given their notoriously short attention spans, sit smitten by very slow- paced theatre, through three- hour daily sessions, speaking of the power of enactments, right from the curtain raiser with the ritual drumming of Mizhavu (mizhavu ochapeduthal, Goshti kottai) during Sreeraman Purappadu (entry of Rama), who after the rites behind the curtain (maravil kriya) assumes a sitting posture on a stool as if Sita is seated on his lap. The young actor Nepathya Sri Hari Chakyar as Rama - son of Margi Madhu Chakyar and Dr Indu running Nepathya, is fast evolving as a Kutiyattam performer to reckon with. Reciting the verse “Shailayamibhi…”,Rama here ponders on a philosophical point, about how distance while lending charm can also lead to exaggeration though fear of the unknown - which familiarity dispels. Thus his excitement about countering frightening demons in Panchavati, (as told to him) had come to naught on arriving here- for hardly anything of this nature existed. On the last evening the same actor, played a feisty Lakshmana competently.
The Uttara Rama Charitam scene saw a superb enactment of Nangiar Kootu (Kutiyattam by female actors)by Dr.Indu. Rama, after rescuing a coupling elephant couple by killing the marauding tusker Sambuka, is reminded of how Sita played with the baby elephant when it nibbled and ate up the tender shoots which adorned her ears, and also how she taught the peacock to dance. Just watching how Dr Indu’s hands moved like the trunk, in her exquisite interpretation capturing the scene, was a lesson in itself. Nangiar Indu’s master stroke was on day five as Lalita, who after smitten advances to the brothers gets enraged when both Rama and Lakshmana repudiate her offer of love. The mobile mukhabhinaya, reflecting both love and hate, came through in a charged compulsive performance, bolstered by the Mizhavu by Kalamandalam Manikantan, Nepathya Jinesh and Nepathya Ashvin with Edakka by Kalanilayam Rajan.
The retrospective on day two, comprised the erecting of the Parnasala by Lakshman in Panchavati - the deal living place as decided by Rama after surveying its beauty. The masterly enactment of the specified construction was by Margi Madhu Chakyar as Lakshmana. The arduous detailing from selection of trees to be cut for erecting walls, building pillars, door and windows, with leaf-thatched roof ideal for meditation, including making simple chairs and beds and pillows with flower petals had the audience sweating with the effort! And the superb drumming to resemble the sound of each act was unbelievable!
Nepathya Rahul Acharya in the role of Lakshmana in one act, gave a fine example of the ‘Panchangam’ (Kudiyattam’s stylized acting convention describing the five aspects of the person viz head, face, eyes, chest and feet) in this case of the disguised Surpanakha, whose comely appearance kindles initial desire till better sense prevails, that under oath to assist his brother and sister-in-law, he cannot give in to such temptation. On day 4,Nepathya Vishnu Prasad’s enactment of Rama appeasing Lakshmana’s resentment against Kaikeyi as reason for their misfortune including Dasaratha’s death, recounts the tragic episode when a young Dasaratha’s arrow meant to kill an elephant, fatally wounds a young boy filling his water pitcher to quench the thirst of his blind parents. Horrified by his mistake, Dasaratha approaching the blind parents with the body of their dead son, is cursed by the father that Dasaratha will die without his son beside him. Vishnu Prasad’s rendition of this heartrending episode had many, including the Mizhavu player, fighting tears. Nepathya Yadukrishnan as Rama showed impressive clarity and exactitude in the brief Rama/Sita exchange. The concluding evening with Indu as Sita and Rahul Chakyar a somewhat tame Rama, climaxed when Margi Madhu Chakyar as Surpanakha in real form enters imitating an inhuman thin woman’s voice, about how she has been used and in the final Ninam entering from the rear of the audience, as the blood- soaked mutilated demon, evoked disgust and horror - plus tingling pathos.
For such well set up event, introductions with basic terms like Choodamani and Panchavati mispronounced was disconcerting.
All the same, a feather in the cap of Sahapedia and assisting organisers!
The writer is an eminent dance critic