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Dr. Mohan Gopinath: I have lived with Kathakali in my life for many decades

February 18, 2022

A discussion with Dr. Mohan Gopinath and Dr. Sabina Zacharias - the Principal Author and Chief Editor respectively of the book 'Vignettes Relating to Kathakali and Shakespeare: the Thirasheela versus the Curtain.'

Vignettes Relating to Kathakali and Shakespeare: the Thirasheela versus the Curtain

Published by Cambridge Scholars Publishing, Newcastle on Tyne, U.K. 2022
Hardcover with illustrations
ISBN-13: 978-1-5275-7777-0
ISBN-10: 1-5275-7777-5
Date of Publication: Jan 20, 2022
Pages / Size: 235 / A5
Price: GBP 61.99, USD 99.95
(Price in India to be announced shortly)

Mohan Gopinath (MG) and Sabina Zacharias (SZ)

What made you compare Shakespeare and Kathakali?
MG: I have lived with Kathakali in my life for many decades - too many perhaps. My father brainwashed me (willingly and when I was four years old) into Kathakali. My nostalgic memory takes me back to my childhood days in Kerala watching the overnight Kathakali performances. My father knew most of the performers and we used to go to the aniyara (green room) and talk to them. I am trained in Kathakali singing and my arangetram (first appearance on stage) was when I was studying in St. Stephen's College. My teacher then was Sadanam Sethu Madhavan (Sethu), the singer at the International Center for Kathakali in Delhi, who painstakingly took me through the rigors of swarams, geethams, and varnams, and also taught me the fundamentals of the rhythms. I also had the privilege of singing with Sethu many times for various performances. My wife Chinnam had a love for the dance form and she used to come for the performances along with me.

The three co- authors brought their strengths into the book. Achu and I share a deep passion for Kathakali. Asha and Nagaraj are strongly inclined to art and provided their suggestions and comments.

I also studied Shakespeare under some wonderful teachers in St. Stephen's College in Delhi and I owe my love for literature to them. So, surely the comparisons came naturally. They were there - only waiting to be uncovered.

Can you tell us about the flow of the book?
SZ: The book starts with the origins (this is a brief section as the purpose of the book is not to give a history of the dance form), and then moves on to analyse the importance of the training imparted to the actors, singers, and percussionists. It indicates how the people trained in the various disciplines (especially the actors) have to build on the basics given to them during the eight years plus of extremely physically and mentally tough training and bring in their own interpretations to flesh out the characters.

Any examples?
SZ: This is backed up with examples on how this is done by different actors. The book moves on to compare the acting of two great actors in Kathakali and Shakespearean drama, and how they interpreted characters - that is, the similarities. These are Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair and Sir Laurence Olivier.

MG: I must add that the cover of the book is a tribute to Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair Asan (as the character Nalan in an introspective mood) with whom I shared many personal interactions. In fact, I am closely related to Asan's wife. The photo was sent to us by Asan's granddaughter Smitha Rajan.

Why these two in particular? Surely there are others?
MG: We feel they are the avatars in their chosen professions. So, we felt the comparisons were very apt. We have gone into detail about how these two actors conceptualized characters - Sir Laurence as Shylock and Krishnan Nair as Nalan are just two examples.

What are the other points you have covered?
SZ: The book looks at the difficulties a Kathakali actor has to undergo in depicting complex and nuanced characters and interpreting them in a sophisticated manner exactly as a Shakespearean actor has to do. The way actors 'get into character' in the two genres is also explored, along with similarities in the characters such as King Lear and Dakshan (both unfortunately linked by filial devotion). Another pair is Hamlet and Nalan - bound by mind forged manacles or self-imposed restraints. The book also goes into detail on the fusion experiments being made between Shakespearean plays and Kathakali and shows that these are not in line with the traditions of either genre.

Your views on the experiments in Kathakali… Surely, they are progressive in nature?
MG: This is tricky but we conclude with a look at the new experiments - for example in Kathakali singing - which are also not in line with the classicism of the dance drama and concludes by looking at the way forward. This should be in such a way that it should not compromise on tradition at the altar of popularity. The USP of the book is the comparisons with Elizabethan drama and identifying the ideal type of theatre (perhaps akin to the Globe Theatre) in which Kathakali should be performed. The importance of the singing and the rhythm in Kathakali are also a part of the book.

I understand that there is an integration of various genres of performing arts in the book - the dance drama, the theatre…
MG: By performing arts, I mean, any form of dance drama or theater and so the readership of the book will be wide as it will also be of interest to actors and the general readers in the west and the east. I have also specifically addressed the fusion of opera and Shakespeare and the experiments now being done through the medium of Kathakali of converting Shakespeare plays into the former genre. Both these aspects will be of interest to the reader in the west who will be able to approach Kathakali through more familiar routes; Shakespeare is after all meant for all times. So, the book will be an engaging read for all aficionados of Shakespeare and Kathakali.

Who will find this book of interest? It seems interesting yet tricky!
MG: There are people who are fond of Kathakali (in India and outside) but find it difficult to understand or come across a book which will cater to their expectations. This book will therefore be of interest to all people keen on developing their understanding of the performing arts, and secondly to the person who is being trained to come into the field of Kathakali as a professional, and thirdly anyone who is a keen follower of the dance drama and the performing arts.

Can you expand a bit more on the USP of the book?
SZ: Obviously, the points made in the book and elaborated on will be of interest to any reader (and not necessarily a reader specializing in the performing arts); the book is, in the final analysis, addressed to all academically oriented people who have an interest in the performing arts and this interest will naturally be both from an academic and a practitioners' perspective; by practitioner I mean those actively involved in the staging and conduct of the dance drama.

So you have looked at two different cultures - the western and the eastern?
MG: I would say yes to that. The book, in short, is the only one to address both Kathakali and Shakespeare simultaneously and bring out comparable points of reference. The western reader interested in Shakespeare will gain a new perspective on the playwright by seeing his work set against a classical Indian dance form, while those interested in Kathakali will gain a new perspective on the actors' portrayal of the character by seeing how Shakespearean actors set about the same task.

Are you planning any more books like this?
MG: Yes, the manuscript is ready and it's called 'And the Twain Shall Meet: Shakespeare in Kerala'. Sabina and I have jointly written this. For Sabina, it is again familiar territory as she has completed her doctoral degree in Cultural Studies from The English and Foreign Languages University (EFLU) in Hyderabad.

To sum up?
SZ: The book will help the westerner gain a greater appreciation of character portrayal and storytelling by learning about Kathakali, and the Indian to do the same by learning about Shakespearean acting and storytelling.

MG: These aspects form the basis of the book and give the word 'Vignettes' in the title its significance. The book presents vignettes of both the genres - Kathakali and Shakespearean theatre. In fact, the book begins with a captivating Kathakali related vignette with Krishnan Nair Asan portraying Roudra Bhiman (Enraged Bhiman) in Duryodhana Vadham (The Slaying of Duryodhana).

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About the authors
Dr. Mohan Gopinath holds a Master's degree in English Literature from St. Stephen's College at Delhi University, which he later joined as a member of the faculty. He obtained a doctoral degree from Osmania University, India. His publications include 'Business Drama: How Shakespearean Insights Help Leaders Manage Volatile Contexts' and 'The Actor Who Could Connect: the Genius of Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair'.

Vellinezhi Achuthan Kutty completed his education at NSS College, Ottapalam and Victoria College, Palakkad, and went on to work in the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Trombay and at the Directorate General of Civil Aviation and Meteorology, in the Sultanate of Oman. He is currently the Director of the Thantra Academy of Behavioural and Allied Sciences and President of Vellinezhi Nanu Nair Smaraka Kalakendram.

Nagesh Bharadwaj holds an MBA from the University of Oklahoma, USA. He worked at Union Pacific Railroad Company and Sony for more than 10 years, and his research interests include the impact of art on life.

Asha Prabhakaran holds an MBA degree from the University of Madras, India and is pursuing a doctoral degree from Anna University, India. She is the author and co-author of a number of articles and case studies.

Dr. Sabina Zacharias has been teaching English Language and Literature, Cultural Studies, Business Communication and Legal English to multicultural and multi-lingual groups at different levels in India and abroad for the last 15 years. She completed her doctoral degree at the English and Foreign Languages University in Hyderabad. Currently, she is an Adjunct Faculty teaching Communication and coordinating training courses in English Language and Soft Skills at various B- Schools in Bangalore.

Excellent interview, very informative and interesting... Best wishes!
(Feb 19, 2022)

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