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Moor's last sigh
Many years ago, I watched as a magnificent troupe of Kathakali dancers performed against the backdrop of the ruins at Persepolis in Southern Iran. It was during the heyday of the Shah of Iran. The Shahbano, as the Empress was called, watched the performance that lasted all of six hours. They were performing the Mahabharatha. Torches flared into the cold desert air. No one understood a word. No one left either. It was an era when just watching a spectacle was enough. Kathakali has within it a capacity to awaken a sense of grandeur. Spectacle itself can have the power to transform the experience. It was this spirit that was awakened during a five-day festival of Kathakali dance, drama and theatre held at Kalakshetra, the well-known centre for the performing arts at Chennai. What made it breathtaking was the manner in which Sadanam Balakrishnan, the leading exponent and teacher of the Kathakali dance form at Kalakshetra, had taken famous classical texts from the Western tradition and transformed them into something strange yet familiar. It was a meeting of two classical forms. Each had a distinct world view, language and aesthetic, which flowed into the other during the performance, creating a balance as delicate as the swaying movement of a Kathakali dancer imitating a peacock dancing for rain.
Kalakshetra's director Leela Samson was Desdemona to Balakrishnan's Othello on the final evening of the cycle of dancedramas that included, apart from Shakespeare, adaptations of the French classics El Cid and Psyche. This was not the first time that Kathakali was meeting Shakespeare. An adaptation of King Lear was performed at The Globe in London in 1999. But here the transformations involved what might be called a Peter Brookian gaze - making the complexity of traditional forms easy enough for a mixed audience.
At Kalakshetra, it was tradition that took centre stage. Surrounded by the wooded forests of the estate, the theatre's thatched roof resounded with bird calls and the high-pitched cries of bats circling the overhead lights. A tall brass lamp that is used in the temples of Kerala was ritually lit at the start. The musicians led the action. It was, however, the costumes that set the tone. When Othello appeared in a brilliant, midnight-blue skirt, gold armour plating his chest, and waving his beringed coal black hands, he was every inch the noble Moor of Shakespeare's imagination. It made his wooing of the fair Desdemona entirely plausible, and his easy deception and decline into a jealous, raging husband intent on strangling his wife despite all her pleas, almost inevitable. Of course, one missed the Shakespearean language, Othello's strangled cry - "Othello's occupation is gone!" was not heard. Instead, there were moments of eerie silence as, Kabuki like, Othello twisted the knife into his soldier heart and sank slowly to his death, but not before the entire trajectory of his life played out in the movement of his eyes and magnificent body.
Leela Samson described the process in some detail. "The texts are adapted and attempt to give Kathakali a new dimension by maintaining the spirit of both the original text and the art form of Kathakali, " she says. "Aashan (respected teacher) is very sensitive in choosing the stories he adapts. It is liberating for any artist to attempt a new text whether in one's own tradition or from another, in new languages or in the same language.
"The make-up, costumes, music and language of gestures are almost the same as the traditional Kathakali form, but there are very slight and suggestive changes made, which are not visibly evident except to those who are familiar with the traditional art form. For instance, take the costume and make-up of Othello and Iago, Othello's is very similar to Bahuka of Nalacharitam. The only change is in the chest plate and shoulder plate, to show that Othello is a mighty warrior. Iago's costume and make-up is very similar to Kali of Nalacharitam, where the larger head gear and fur coat is avoided because that character is a spirit, while Iago is a human being. But the qualities of their character are the same. Special instruments like the Timila and a particular rhythm, Kundanachi, were introduced in these dramas to highlight the dramatic effect of these works.
"The English subtitling is just an aid to help the audience understand the detailing of the emotion depicted in the drama, but the actual enjoyment of the rasika is the abhinaya and the emotions created by the artist. The fact that the language of singing is Malayalam and not English hugely affects the poetic sensibility of the work as 'suggestion' is far more resonant in vernacular Indian languages than in English. Elizabethan English had that quality.
"Aashan actually tried to include the humourous scenes of these dramas, the first time he performed it, but the duration of the drama extended up to four to five hours. The modern-day audience finds it difficult to spend that kind of time for a performance. So, he decided to concentrate on the main storyline of the drama and thus, the humour aspect was minimal."
One of the criticisms of intercultural theatre is just that. It irons out the nuances to a single storyline. A seasoned actor no longer adds to his experience in a well-honed role but tends to become uni-dimensional. Samson, however, disagrees with this when she explains, "The tragedy, nature, descriptions and heroism are all similar to the great characters of the Mahabharatha, and except for Othello, they all have the same auspicious ending of the Indian works."
The Kathakali experience at Kalakshetra is now becoming an annual event. It is theatre as memory, as storytelling, as sound, but most of all, as gorgeous spectacle.
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