Avanavan Kadamba 
- Padma Jayaraj, Thrissur
e-mail: padmajayaraj@gmail.com

September 26, 2008 
'Avanavan Kadamba, One's Self is the Hurdle,' is a play conceived by Kavalam Narayana Panikkar, and directed by late G Aravindan, a well known director in Malayalam cinema. It was first enacted in 1976 and has won laurels in drama festivals for three decades. The recent show in Kochi proves its eternal relevance with contemporary echoes. Organized by the Ernakulam Press Club that celebrates its Ruby Jubilee Year, theatre buffs flocked to watch a week-long theatre festival that staged many plays of Kavalam Narayana Panikkar.
"Kavalam Narayana Panikker is one of the principal architects of Contemporary theatre in India," said Anuradha Kapoor, Director of National School of Drama, Delhi, addressing the valedictory session of the festival. The contribution of the doyen of theatre, who turned 80, is unique in many ways. He evolved a language, taking elements from the indigenous theatre of Kerala, both classical and folk. His use of songs, music and spectacle is exclusive to the aesthetics of Kerala. In theme, form, and audience participation, Avanavan Kadamba shows the distinctive stamp of Kavalam.  The play is a quest to understand the meaning and purpose of life in its various emotional and spiritual levels. In the process, the theme rises to the level of sheer poetry and reveals the folk wisdom that is unique to Indian philosophical thinking.
Changapuzha Park, named after the famous poet of Malayalam is a venue for regular theatrical practice. Here, under "the drama-tree" the ground is prepared for enacting the play. Lighting is done in an obtrusive manner. The actors are surrounded by the audience on three sides, as in the street theatre. There they sat, a lake of humans, under a cloud-cast sky waiting for some mystery to unravel. The play began in perfect ambience. It started with a dialogue, reminiscent of kurathiyattam, between two groups, pattu parisha, the singers and andipandaram the dancers. They are the time-honoured artists, wandering minstrels and pilgrims who are seekers. They are on their way to an utsav in the temple of the Mother Goddess. They move singing and dancing, pilgrims in procession. And as they seek their way, they know that they have to cross a hurdle, and beyond, lo, there stands the temple!! 
The dancers go a-begging for sustenance. On their move, they represent life’s pilgrimage gossiping all along. A recurring, clash of egos overwhelm the presentation. And egoism emerges as a dominant theme which creates the hurdle in the pilgrim's progress. 
The pilgrims move on singing and dancing... enacting the drama of life. Selfishness makes one of them steal money from the other group. The offender is singled out, but forgiven after confession. The sub text of money as a cause for conflict in society gains dominance. Soon, the news of a headless dead body floating in the river fills the air. Gossiping lends colour and drama. The violence unleashed comes to the forefront as another theme echoing the low-intensity war fought by activists all over the world. Violence begets violence. And innocent love is sacrificed on the scaffold of power. The question of the vanished lover and the idea of hired assassin recall contemporary events. These travails of contemporary world are presented through primitive arts and cults to show the aches of humanity down the line. The use of folk elements takes the play to the height of poetry. 
The chieftain and the villagers congregate to analyse and discover their problem, to find out the killer of the headless trunk and award punishment. Irony seeps in to reveal the nexus between the ruler and the killer. Twists lead to an unexpected finale. The condemned criminal expresses his last wish, "...to go the utsav of the temple of the Mother Goddess." Custom demands that the Chieftain agrees. A ritual dance that evokes epiphany culminates in the revelation. One has to purify one's self, remove the impurities that have stained the human spirit: egoism, selfishness, violence. And let love kindle its light. With the marriage of separated lovers, enacted through a village game, festivities start. Singers and dancers, criminals and rulers move in a delirium, crossing the so called hurdle to the temple of the Mother Goddess. All of them losing their distinct identity are the waves of the same sea. The spirit is so contagious that the audience are roused to move with them singing and thumping to the rhythm of their movement. An ecstasy envelops the atmosphere, creating the willing suspension of disbelief. 
Avanavan Kadamba, a mile-stone production in the history of Malayalam theatre validates the contribution of regional theatre to the main stream Contemporary Indian theatre. The costume indicative of chakyarkoothu symbolises wit, humour and social criticism the play guarantees. Knitted in a loose narrative mode in real ethnic Malayalam with the rural flavour of the spoken word, the play communicates the magic realism of a forgotten horizon in its varied hues. The flexibility gives space to actors to interpret according to their sensibilities and perceptions. Talented actors like Nedumudi Venu, Jaganathan, Kaladharan, Jayaraj et al made the production a memorable one.

Padma Jayaraj is a freelance journalist and a regular contributor to www.narthaki.com