The tragic plight of Karna
Text & pics: Hareesh N Nampoothiri

June 15, 2014

‘Karna Sapatham’ by Mali Madhavan Nair is one of the most successful Kathakali plays in the modern age. Karna is the protagonist here and his encounter with Kunthi before the battle of Kurukshetra, forms the crux of the play. Drisyavedi recently staged the play here in Thiruvananthapuram, as their evening Kathakali program for the month of June and it was Kalamandalam Shanmukhadas and RLV Radhakrishnan, who played the roles of Karna and Kunthi respectively. The role of Karna, often handled by the doyens in the field, was equally safe in the hands of Shanmukhadas, an actor from the young generation.

The first part of the play largely relies on the actor who plays the role of Bhanumathi, the wife of King Duryodhana, who is afraid of her husband's fate in the battle of Kurukshetra. Margi Sukumaran did the role of Bhanumathi but hardly made an attempt to bring some life into the character. Kalanilayam Vinod, who played the part of Duryodhana, also couldn't do much to save the scene and that segment ended up a soulless affair.

Duryodhana & Dussasana

Kunthi & Karna

At this time, Karna comes in and upon request of Duryodhana, he tries to instill some courage in Bhanumathi to take away her worries. Though he succeeds in bringing back the smile on Bhanumathi's face, he finds himself worried, the reason being his doubts on his birth and parents. Kalamandalam Shanmukhadas took a different approach here, as he made his entry itself with a subdued face, reflecting the conflicts in the mind of Karna. It was in total contrast with the usual practice of Karna entering with a face showing full of valor. He chose to portray two incidents in the life of Karna before moving on to Enthiha Manmanase..., the famous padam in raga Hindolam. The first one described how Karna got confused seeing the troubled face of Kunthi, while he once passed the palanquin carrying Kunthi by chance. The other one was how he ended up receiving the curse from Parasurama, as the sage identified him as a Kshatriya. While these are oft-seen narrations, the crisp but sweeping approach of Shanmukhadas made them captivating.

In the latter part of the play, Kunthi arrives to meet Karna and requests him to join the Pandavas. The furious reaction of Karna forces Kunthi to reveal the truth about his parentage. While Kunthi does not want to see him in the battlefield against Pandavas, Karna makes it clear that he cannot leave Duryodhana who had made his life meaningful all along. However, Karna gives his word to Kunthi that he will not kill the Pandavas with the exception of Arjuna. While RLV Radhakrishnan as Kunthi did fairly well, his act lacked substance to make it something notable. He intentionally or unintentionally mimics the much famed style of Kottakal Sivaraman, which often shadows his own capabilities as an actor. Shanmukhadas appeared almost clueless at the departure of Kunthi, while Radhakrishnan stretched it more than what was expected. A better rapport between the actors could have saved the scene from this awkwardness.

The climax of the play is when Dussasana informs Duryodhana about Karna's meeting with Kunthi and the vow that Karna takes to win back the faith and friendship of Duryodhana. These scenes are often presented in a fast forward mode skipping most of the lyrics and same thing happened here as well. May be a little more serious approach is required towards the end to bring out the true gist of the scene as imagined by the playwright. Dussasana in Karna Sapatham makes only guest appearances and Kalamandalam Parthasarathy's red-beard character looked elegant on stage.

The main vocalist Kalamandalam Jayaprakash was not at his best to begin with but came back well in the middle with his soulful rendering. Sreerag Varma could have done better as the supporting vocalist. Kottakal Prasad on chenda and Kalanilayam Manoj on maddalam were impressive and did well in following the actors’ gestures and steps. The chutty (facial make-up) by Margi Raveendran and the costumes arranged by Margi were also equally good. Putting it all together, the rasikas were not at a loss here but also it was not the best 'Karna Sapatham' we get to see these days.

Hareesh N Nampoothiri is a visual design consultant by profession and a lover of classical art forms. Being an ardent follower of Kathakali, he conceptualized and directed a documentary on Kathakali titled 'Thouryathrikam,' which introduces the nuances of Kathakali to the common man. Writing and photography are his other passions.