Male impersonating female persona
- Dr. Utpal K Banerjee
January 20, 2021
Streevesham in Kathakali
By Prabal Gupta
The book under review is an impressive piece of research work, quite comprehensive in its coverage, normally unusual for a "coffee table" book. It is all the more creditable for the publisher to have brought out a lavishly illustrated - both in color and black and white - volume of an investigative book of this nature. Both the author and the publisher are deserving of the readers' encomium.
As the iconic Mohiniyattam dancer Bharati Shivaji - who was instrumental in diverting the author's skill and energy from Mohiniyattam to Kathakali-says in the beginning, "Through his book, Prabal... while tracing streevesham in Kathakali, has drawn parallel inferences from other allied performing arts like Bhagavata Mela Natakam, Ankia Nat, Kuchipudi, Yakshagana and the other performing arts of Kerala like Krishnanattam or folk art forms like Theyyam to establish the existence of female impersonation throughout the ages. His research work specifically talks about the historicity behind the technique of the streevesham genus of Kathakali with an elaborate discussion on Angika, Sattvika, Vachika and Aharya which makes this unique... for practitioners of dance forms across all genres."
The author begins at the beginning with the genesis of Kathakali among the verdant palm fronds, lush green paddy fields, the misty mountains and deep rain forests thriving among the energetic boat races in the expansive backwaters. Dance has been a medium of exchanging thoughts and social culture among the general masses on the south of the Vindhyas, with the chief deity of the Dravidians being Mother Goddess. In the middle ages, Kerala was dotted with small kingdoms fighting ceaselessly internecine battles among themselves and the art of warfare gave rise to Kalari (gymnasium) and eventually, to Kalaripayattu (martial arts). In the 16th century, the saint Shri Chaitanya came to Kerala travelling from Bengal via Orissa and popularized Jayadeva's epic Gita Govinda, giving rise to Attapadiyattam (dance-drama). In the late 17th century was born Krishnanattam, presenting in eight episodes the entire life of Krishna.
The embodying of a female subject in various moods and settings originated from Lasya aspects of dance attributed to Devi Parvati, as distinct from Tandava ascribed to Shiva. Both traditions were prevalent in Kerala, with men performing the male role in Chakiyar Koothu and women enacting female roles in Nangiyar Koothu. Tracing the concept of streevesham in allied art forms, the author rightly praises its prevalence in Kuchipudi, setting this critic nostalgic about the superb female impersonation of Kala Krishna in depicting Nava Rasa in Kuchipudi in the Bhagya Chandra Festival in Manipur in the late 1990s. Men also enact the role of Bhadrakali or Bhagavati in Mudiyettu, one of the ancient ritualistic dances of Kerala. In Theyyam (literally meaning Deivam or God), all forms of Devis are performed by men. In Krishnanattam, one of the progenitors of Kathakali, the female characters are enacted by men. In Ramanattam too, all female characters like Sita, Kaikeyi, Surpanakha etc., are enacted by men.
Kathakali streevesham is not enough in just wearing the female costume and looking feminine on stage. Becoming the character is of utmost importance so that the spectators can identify the character in appearance, in behavior and in acting on stage. Looking at Angika (the art of acting through body movements), the best reference manual is Balarama Bharatam of the early 18th century, laying down streevesham poses of the chin, the arms, the hands and the knees. Kannusadhakam (the eye exercises) begins early in the dawn. Kathakali follows the text Hastalakshana Deepika laying down twenty-four basic hand gestures. Sattvika (the art of acting through inner emotions) is to create rasa in the viewers through bhava of the actor and the author's illustrations provided in the book are most illuminating. Aharya (the art of acting through make-up and costume) has remarkably differentiated Kathakali from any other Indian classical dance and streevesham is marked here under the Minukku (polished) category, as these characters are more realistic in nature than the superheroes, demons and their ilk. Finally, Vachika (the art of acting through musical accompaniment) is based on Sopanam music, as indigenous to the Kerala music system. 'Sopanam' literally means the stairways leading to the sanctum sanctorum, where edakka is beaten and sung to, while rituals are being performed.
The book does not fail to mention the repertoire of Kathakali with special reference to streevesham. These are: Thodayam (invocatory odes to the gods and goddesses), Vandana Slokam (prayers to various deities), Purappad (main program by the central character) introducing Chenda, the main percussion instrument on stage, Pakudi Purappad (describing Krishna as taken from Kirmeera Vadham or Kalyana Saugandhikam), Sari Nrityam (pure dance), Kummi (female group dance), Pantadi (imaginary ball dance) and Keki Attam (peacock dance). Major Attakathas of Kathakali which have dominated streevesham roles include various Lalithas (Simhikas in disguise), again taken from the Attakathas.
Experiments and innovations, highlighting Kathakali streevesham, have included Tagore's dance-dramas like Chitrangada; compositions of Jayadeva to create jugalbandi of Kathakali streevesham with Mohiniyattam; and, most interestingly, Lady Macbeth and Queen Cleopatra: taken out of the Shakespearean plays Macbeth and Anthony and Cleopatra. Recent works, exploring the boundaries of Kathakali streevesham with Purulia Chhau are worth mentioning. The book ends with the profiles of some well-known streevesham professionals of Kathakali.
The author's investigative bend of mind should possibly take him to explore various forms of streevesham in other Indian classical and traditional dances for a doctoral level work in Telugu University or Khairagarh University or senior-fellowship research work under Ministry of Culture.
Dr. Utpal K Banerjee is a scholar-commentator on performing arts over last four decades. He has authored 23 books on Indian art and culture, and 10 on Tagore studies. He served IGNCA as National Project Director, was a Tagore Research Scholar and is recipient of Padma Shri.
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