Arangu - An innovative workshop on Kathakali
- Renu Ramanath
Photos: Biju Menon

October 17, 2010

No art form, be it classical or contemporary, visual or performing, can sustain itself without the creative support of the critical connoisseur. Though most of the classical art forms of India are now getting a new lease of life with more stages and support systems, the decline in the level of discernment among the audience is still a cause of serious concern.

Ideally, the discerning connoisseur should have the ability to make critical interventions into the particular art form. The absence of such a critical look, which is a world apart from the casual glance of applause, will only lead to the slow weakening of the art form itself. In this context emerges the necessity of creating a discerning audience, because the audience can be created and taught how to appreciate an art form properly.

Arangu-2010, the three-day-long Kathakali Workshop organised by Thiranottam, a Dubai-based cultural organisation at Irinjalakuda (Thrissur district, Kerala) recently was an important step ahead in this direction, which offered an innovative platform for experiment and explorations for both the aficionados and emerging performers. The plus point was the presence of senior masters.

Thiranottam, based in Dubai, has been conducting programs in Kerala since 2007, and since 2009, the Kerala programs were brought under the common title, 'Arangu.' "Till now, we've focused on senior-most artistes, with the programs mainly being major set performances of Kathakali. But, this time, we wanted to give an opportunity to upcoming artistes," says Ramesan Nambisan, an office bearer of Thiranottam.

The masters - Kalamandalam Vasu Pisharody, Nelliyodu Vasudevan Namboothiri,
Sadanam Krishnankutty, Vazhenkada Vijayan & Sadanam Balakrishnan

The selected young performers were asked to present a particular portion with innovations and interpretations prepared under the guidance of experienced connoisseurs. Performing the innovations before the seniors was almost like the process of submitting for approval! And, the seniors never minced their words while making the observations too. The master performers who were present throughout the three days of the workshop included Nelliyode Vasudevan Namboothiri, Vazhenkada Vijayan, Sadanam Krishnankutti, Kalamandalam Vasu Pisharody and Sadanam Balakrishnan.

Before each performance, experts were requested to give introductory speeches. That was for the benefit of the new rasikas who might be unaware of the significance of the chosen portions or about the changes introduced. No complete story was selected for the performances, but only particular 'rangam-s,' (scenes) like that of Nalan from 'Nalacharitham – Third Day,' of the 'Ashaari,' (Carpenter) in 'Bakavadham,' or Lalitha from 'Kirmeeravadham.'

The workshop began with a somber note of remembrance of the great, departed maestro Kottakkal Sivaraman, the master female impersonator of Kathakali. Delivering the memorial lecture, scholar and author V Kaladharan pointed out how the late maestro had taken the female characters of Kathakali to unprecedented heights. He reminded the young generation that Sivaraman's successors had the responsibility to take forward the characters he had developed.

The writer K B Raj Anand, in his introductory speech, outlined the aims and objectives of the workshop, describing the process through which the young performers as well as the portions they were to present were selected. The characters were chosen so as to give maximum freedom to the actors, their challenge being how to make the particular moments more dramatic or how to make the characters deeper. Another aim was to bridge the distance that has cropped up in recent times between the viewer and the performer.

Haripriya Namboothiri
as Poothana in Poothana Moksham
Kalamandalam Shanmukhadas
as Nalan in Nalacharitham - 3rd day

The workshop started with Haripriya Namboothiri, a young woman performer, presenting 'Poothana Moksham,' the classic story popular in both Kathakali and Koodiyattam, with an introduction by herself. She had introduced some improvisations in the presentation of the portion, like conceiving Krishna not as an infant, but as a one year old toddler and like introducing the elements of some north Indian folk dances into the description of the Gopis' dancing in Ambadi. Haripriya's performance was followed by Kalamandalam Shanmughadas presenting Nala from 'Nalacharitham – 3rd Day,' with an introduction by Dr. P Venugopalan.

In the next performance, the padam-s (verses) beginning with 'Malini…' and 'Harinakshi…..' from 'Keechakavadham,' were presented by Kalamandalam Ravikumar (Keechaka), and Kalamandalam Mukundan (Sairandri). The introduction was by MJ Sreechithran. In the evening, Prof. KN Surendranatha Varma delivered the Guru Pallippuram Gopalan Nair Memorial Lecture, remembering the late actor and former principal of Kalanilayam, who was known for his 'kathi vesham-s.'

Kalamandalam Ravikumar as Keechaka & Kalamandalam Mukundan
as Sairandhri in Keechakavadham
Peesappilly Rajeevan as Balabhadran & Arun Warrier
as Krishnan in Subhadraharanam
Peeshappilly Rajeevan as Balabhadran
Kalamandalam Manoj Kumar as Aashari in Bakavadham

The role of Balabhadra in 'Subhadraharanam,' where Balabhadra enters with uncontrollable rage on learning the news of Arjuna carrying away his (and Krishna's) sister Subhadra, was performed with Peeshappally Rajeevan as Balabhadra and Kalamandalam Arun Warrier as Krishna. Taking part in the discussion, Dr. Venugopal raised the doubt as to why Krishna is always portrayed in this particular scene as taking a subservient stance before Balabhadra, often not performing even one mudra.

On the second day, Kalamandalam Manoj Kumar presented the role of 'Ashaari,' (carpenter) from 'Bakavadham,' with an introduction by Peeshappilly Rajeevan. The character of Ashaari or the carpenter is of strategic importance in 'Bakavadham,' as he's sent to the Pandavas by Vidura to warn them about the Kauravas' plan to murder them all by trapping them within the palace made of lac ('Arakkillam'). The carpenter has also completed the construction of a tunnel through which the Pandavas are supposed to escape once the palace is set on fire. However, traditionally, the carpenter had always been presented as a comic figure. Manoj Kumar presented the role with a change in costume and attitude that lent an air of seriousness to the character.

Kalamandalam Soman
as Jarasandha in Rajasooyam
Kalamandalam Vijayakumar as Lalita & Kalamandalam Sucheendranathan as Panchali in Kirmeeravadham

Next, Kalamandalam Soman presented Jarasandhan from 'Rajasooyam,' with an introduction by Pullanikkad Narayanan. Another interesting portion presented next was the scene between Lalitha and Panchali from 'Kirmeeravadham,' in which the demoness Simhika, in the guise of Lalitha, the beautiful damsel, lures Panchali into the deep forest to wreak revenge upon the Pandavas who killed her husband. Kalamandalam Vijayakumar (Champakkara Vijayan), presented Lalitha, with Kalamandalam Sucheendranath donning the role of Panchali. The introduction was by Dr. AN Krishnan, who delineated the importance of 'Kirmeeravadham,' Attakkatha in the evolution of Kathakali. By the time Kathakali reached the hands of Kottayathu Thampuran, from Kottarakkara Thampuran, the structure had generally become more dramatic, with minute attention getting paid to the development of the plot, giving it a strong structural compactness. Thus, the characters Simhika and Sardoolaka were created by the author in the story of Kirmeera the demon and the Pandavas.

Next, Sadanam Bhasi presented Hanuman from 'Thoranayudham' with introduction by KB Raj Anand. Then, Ravana of 'Thoranayudham' was presented by Kalamandalam Pradeep Kumar, with Dr. EN Narayanan giving the introduction.

Sadanam Bhasi
as Hanuman in Thoranayudham
Kalamandalam Pradeep as Ravana & RLV Pramod
as Mandodari in Thoranayudham
Kalanilayam Gopinath as Daksha & Kalanilayam Manoj
as Indra in Dakshayagam
Kalanilayam Gopi as Duryodhana & Kalamandalam Shanmughadas
as Bhanumati in Utharaswayamvaram

On the concluding day, the veteran maestro, Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair, who was honoured with a Padma Bhushan recently, was felicitated at the valedictory function. Endowments and grants instituted by Thiranottam for the senior artists and young performers were distributed at the function.

Two full length Kathakali performances, 'Dakshayagam' and 'Uthara Swayamvaram,' were also presented as part of the workshop, with the second one being a 'Sampoorna,' performance, lasting the whole night.

Renu Ramanath is a Kochi-based art writer and columnist, specialising in visual arts, classical and contemporary performing arts, architecture and development issues. She was a reporter of The Hindu in Kochi bureau during 1997 - 2007 and currently edits Art Concerns (, an online journal for contemporary Indian art.