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EYES WIDE OPEN

Not a swan song

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Drum beats and soft singing break the silence as the curtains go up on the first day of Bhava Bhavanam, Chennai-based Kalakshetra Foundation's annual kathakali (dance-drama ) festival.

The performers on stage hold the audience enthralled as they move majestically, elaborate headdresses gleaming, their painted faces reflecting a myriad expressions. A 300-year-old art form bursts to life.

This is the first time in Chennai that the entire Nala Charitham, the story of Nala and Damayanthi from the Mahabharata is being staged. As one of the most prestigious classical arts institutions in the country, Kalakshetra makes for the perfect venue.

Originally written to be performed over four days, the festival this year is spread over five days with 60 artists - dancers and musicians - coming together to showcase various aspects of kathakali. The main performers are all drawn from Kerala and include people like the legendary Kalamandalam Gopi, who plays Nala on day three and four.

One of the oldest forms of theatre, kathakali suffered a decline because of the caste system. "Lower castes were not allowed to enter temple premises and so it moved away from the people, " says kathakali enthusiast Narayanan Nampoodiri. "Revival activities began in the 1930s with Malayalam poet Vallathol Narayana Menon establishing the Kerala Kalamandalam. Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair made it really popular in the 1960s. "

In the latter part of the '60s, singers like Kalamandalam Hyder Ali and Venmani Haridas helped to reinvigorate public interest in kathakali. Kathakali clubs also emerged around the same time. "Earlier, the performances went on all night, with people gathering at temple grounds, " says Kalamandalam Balasubramanian, a former principal of Kerala Kalamandalam, a deemed university of art and culture, and the dancer who played Nala on the first two days of the festival. "They shortened the plays to three to four hours and that really helped as people could catch a play and still go to work the next day. Though all-night performances are rare now, there is more interest in kathakali. "

Over the years, Kalakshetra has also been trying to showcase the various aspects of kathakali through its annual festival. This year, for the fourth edition, they have chosen Nala Charitham, a love story that has charmed generations. In the story, King Nala falls in love with princess Damayanthi after hearing about her beauty from Sage Narada. He gets a golden swan to be his messenger and the two get married at a swayamvaram. Though her suitors include gods Indra, Yama, Agni and Varuna, Damayanthi chooses Nala. Kali and Dwapara, two celestial beings who are infuriated by Damayanthi marrying a mortal instead of a god, decide to destroy Nala. After seven years, they succeed and Nala loses his kingdom in a game of dice and is forced to roam the forests with his wife. For her own sake, he abandons her one night and the rest of the story is about their separation and how they are finally reunited.

Kathakali pieces are based on attakathas or dance-drama text. Popular attakathas include Kalyanasouygandhikam (the story of Bhima going to get flowers for his wife Panchali) and keechakavadham (Bhima and Panchali in disguise). But the Nala Charitham attakatha by 17th-century Malayalam poet Unnayi Variyar is considered the piece de resistance of the kathakali repertoire. Until the 1950, all the roles, male and female, were played by men, but over the last few decades, a few women have entered the field.

Nampoodiri says that in kathakali it is the movements that are most important. "When you play a female character, you have to observe women and the way they move so that your performance is convincing, " says Kalamandalam Shanmukhan, who played Damayanthi on day one of the festival. Though he has played this role for 15 years, he still finds it challenging. Movements also gain great importance when you play characters like the hamsam (swan), says Bhasi. The 40-year-old is famous for essaying the role of the swan which brings Nala and Damayanthi together. "The role doesn't involved abhinaya, so everything is conveyed through movements. "

You can learn the important parts but it can never be fully taught, " says Balasubramanian, who has been playing Nala for the last 30 years. "You have to watch and absorb, understand the mental turmoil of the character and portray it. "
In the last decade, with more invitations pouring in, the artistes have been travelling out of the state more frequently than they did before. "Earlier, an artist did about 40 performances a year, " says Balasubramanian. "Now you get about 80. " Artistes are now invited to perform across India as well as abroad, especially where the Malayali community has a strong presence. "Dubai has a festival every November where traditional Kerala art forms are showcased, " says Shannmukhan. "If you are a really good artist, you do earn well but not everybody may make the mark. Not many people come forward to learn it as they feel it may not be financially viable. "

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