The painted faces, rich costumes and elaborate headgear of Keralan theatre and dance have been so liberally sprinkled on tourist literature that, spectacular as they are, they have almost lost their power to command our attention. To see such theatre in action, though, is to be mesmerised all over again.
At 13 hours – spread over four days – Sakuntalam Kutiyattam bears comparison with the Bayreuth Festival’s Ring Cycle. Here, though, there is no decade-long waiting list for tickets; entry is free and open to anyone who can find their way through the backlanes of a small town near Thrissur to Natana Kairali, a centre for traditional arts set up by Gopal Venu. The audience is an eclectic mix of Mr Venu’s former pupils, arty types, Sanskrit professors and the obligatory MLA plus flunkees (can any cultural event in India start without felicitating a local politician?). The theatre is in Mr Venu’s backyard. This being Kerala the backyard is a tangle of banana, coconut and betel nut trees bordered by a large tank; as we wait for the performance to start crickets provide the music and bats, which swoop through the stage, the spectacle. The theatre itself consists of a banana-leaf roof supported with bamboos, from which hang spotlights and electrical wiring. Indeed, the electrical equipment and chairs are the only real concession to modernity. Behind the stage, separated by a diaphanous cloth screen, is a smaller area which acts as a single changing room for all the actors as well as backstage. The role of make up artist is assumed by younger pupils and the actors themselves, who use small handheld mirrors to effect their transformation.
Kutiyattam, like most other dance and theatre forms in India, grew out of temples and it retains its religious significance. The drummers who provide the music for the performance – alongside two young girls with small cymbals – pray before they begin. Similarly the first entrance of each actor is a ceremony itself in which the actor, screened by a red and white cloth, turns first to the drummers and then, taking position behind the screen, stands ready to be revealed to the audience.
The play from which this Kutiyattam performance is adapted is the fourth century AD Abhijnana Sakuntalam (The Recognition of Sakuntala), the most famous and probably the most beautiful of all Sanskrit plays by India’s most celebrated ancient poet, Kalidasa. King Dushyanta happens across the heroine, Sakuntala, in her father’s hermitage while out hunting. Enamoured he marries her according to the gandharva rite, a kind of ancient love marriage. He returns to his kingdom, and Sakuntala, by now pregnant with his son, leaves the ashram to go to her husband’s house. Dushyanta though, cannot recognise her due to a curse. Rejected, Sakuntala is spirited away to another ashram until such time as Dushyanta should have cause to recognise her and the son she has borne him – at which point they all live happily ever after. Kalidasa, who took the story from the Mahabharata, rounded it off with the happy ending that Sanskrit drama – like Bollywood – requires.
Much of kutiyattam is non-verbal, and involves only small movements: the swivelling of the eyes from target to bow, target to bow as an archer takes aim, or the dance of eyebrows. Actors assume many different roles, sometimes all the roles, including those of animals; and they use no props. Mudras or set hand formations are used to signify, where needed, which role the actor is playing at present. Some are obvious – like the sign for the deer – but others are difficult for the uninitiated to understand, along with much of the other complex dramatical language employed throughout. It is a theatre of great subtlety which demands of its audience keen observation and patience. Such observation and patience though are rewarded. Few could watch Duśyanta’s charioteer enacting the happily grazing deer suddenly alerted to danger as the king starts the chase and then fleeing, crazed with fear, without feeling the deer’s terror.
This production is Mr Venu’s adaptation of Kalidasa’s play, which was first performed in 2002. The play is punctuated with sparingly selected verses and dialogues from the Sanskrit (and Prakrit – for non-Sanskrit speakers like women) original. The drums – which are continuously playing otherwise – fall silent for the delivery of these lines, which are stretched out in a sort of half-chant. This manner of delivery does little to communicate the famed beauty of some of the verses – indeed Kalidasa’s plays were not traditionally used for kutiyattam perhaps because their lyric beauty was less suitable than other more dramatic texts – although it does at least ensure that every word is clearly heard.
It is the combination of the pulsing drumbeats and the wordless acting that has the greatest power to move the audience. The drummers watch the actors intently and create a verbal echo for every flicker of the eyes and dart of the finger, so that it is almost as if the actors’ movements themselves produce the sound. The range of sounds the drums – two mizhavus, large bronze urns with leather stretched over their mouths, and one smaller edakka – can produce belies their seeming simplicity. The power of the mime is thus doubled – we can almost see and hear the bee that Sakuntala tries to fight off.
As the only living form of Sanskrit theatre, kutiyattam was recognised by UNESCO as a Masterpiece of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity in 2001. And Kerala has successfully marketed kutiyattam, along with so many of its other assets, to the foreign holiday makers who flock here. While such recognition does of course help, it is these small, devoted bands of its proponents who will hopefully keep the theatre truly alive and thus prevent it being reduced to pre-dinner background entertainment at one of India’s seven-star hotels.
This article first appeared, in a shortened form, in the New Indian Express here