Some ancient traditions are still alive in modern India.
Dusk was here.
As the last of the twilight rays soaked into the verdant countryside, a group of artists sat inside a 300 year-old house, reverently applying organic make-up for their performance later that night.
I popped into their dressing room to see the final touches being applied to the artists playing Krishna and Draupadi. Even though female performers have recently made their foray into this drama/dance form, Kathakali has traditionally been a male-oriented affair. For this performance, Draupadi was being played by a man.
Bheema making entrance
I marvelled at the arduous tenacity of the pre-performance preparations. By the time I had popped into their dressing room, the group was already six to seven hours into their make up process.
The performance finally began with a warming up of the singers and musicians playing percussion instruments such as Maddalam, Chenda, Edakka and Ilathalam. A small crowd of family members and local enthusiasts too had gathered around to watch.
Here’s a synopsis of the action on stage: Duryodanavadham acts out the jealousy of the Kauravas towards their Pandava cousins, followed by the gambling away of the kingdom and their exile into the forest.
Roudrabheeman in a duel combat with Dussasana with percussionists
But the story is all about revenge: it’s like the Kill Bill of Kathakali. Instead of Uma Thurman, we have Draupadi, who gets supremely pissed off with Dussasana for insulting her when she became the object of ridicule in the gambling incident. Draupadi demands vengeance, vowing not to groom her hair until Bheema kills Dussasana. She vows to live in shabbiness until her husband rejuvenates her hair with his slain opponent’s blood. Gruesome!
Roudrabheeman before slaying Dussasana
As I watched the play, mesmerized, one scene in particular gave me an acute case of goose bumps. Bheema took the form of Roudrabheema, basically normal Bheema in hulk mode, going all ape-shit crazy on Dussasana as he rips apart the latter’s intestines and spleen to avenge Draupadi.
Roudrabheeman ripping apart Dussasana's intestines
The final act shows Bheema drinking the make-believe blood and rubbing it on an ecstatic Draupadi’s disheveled hair. Krishna makes an appearance towards the end and Bheema seeks his forgiveness for his murderous episode.
Even though the play is about the killing of Duryodana, that part of the act is usually skipped, as it gets even bloodier. The expressions and actions portrayed by the characters in itself can be morbidly intimidating sometimes and virtuously gracious at others.
Roudrabheeman with Dussasana's blood in his hands and mouth following the killing
I hadn’t imagined how cathartic the experience of this performance would be for me. The truth is that I’ve always felt somewhat guilty about not experiencing the essential traces of my culture even though I’m in my mid thirties. Somehow, my hectic Mumbai life helped me lock that shame within me. I pretended it didn’t hurt, even though it did.
But after finally checking Kathakali off my bucket list, I felt instantly prouder, more Malayali. More me, somehow.
Krishna trying to broker peace with Duryodana for the Pandavas
Although the exact age of Kathakali is unclear, it’s said that the art in its current form developed in the 17th century. Its historic roots and branches can be traced back even further, to the ancient Kerala art form called Kutiyattam that tentatively dates back 1500 years and may be one of the oldest surviving art forms in the country.
The two styles of Kathakali that developed were the Kidangoor style that became popular in the Travancore parts of Kerala. The more dominant Kalluvayi style was developed in this very place (Olappamanna Mana) where I watched the performance.
Roudrabheeman after assuming his regular form seeking Krishna's forgiveness for his violent actions
It’s important that this kaleidoscopic range of art forms and cultural quirks survive in our “modern” India. Prime time no-brain television has eaten into the entertainment space that was once reserved for traditional, ancient art forms, most of which were designed to be performed at night.
But maybe Kathakali can compete with modern entertainment. That night, I realized how fucking incredible this centuries old performance art can be. The play I saw involved blood and gore in a Frank Miller or Tarantino-esque kind of way. Blood in mouth, spleen in hand kind of climax.
Enough to keep me more entertained than any screen has in a long time.
Telling stories through dance, music and drama
The performance was part of The Blue Yonder initiative.
Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are independent views solely of the author(s) expressed in their private capacity and do not in any way represent or reflect the views of 101india.com
By Mohan KK
Photographs by: Mohan KK