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'Njan... Udal... Manassu'
- SK Venugopal
Photos: Baiju Chandran and Sreeraj

November 22, 2023

An opportunity to watch 'Njan... Udal... Manassu' was something I really wanted not to miss, as I knew the background of the artiste and her credentials as a performer of Bharatanatyam and Mohiniattam. Obviously, there was this curiosity about the concept behind the production as to whether it was dance or drama or both. The day finally arrived and it was on the 17th of this month, at 'Ganesham', Trivandrum, as part of the 111day long Soorya festival, Gayathri Padmanabhan was presenting this unique solo production. As usual the ambience at 'Ganesham' was just amazing.

Gayathri, a post graduate in engineering, was Asst. Professor at Amrita Viswa Vidyalayam, Coimbatore, but resigned her job to pursue her passion in dance and drama. She is presently doing her research on automatic identification and recognition of Bharatanatyam 'hasthas' from images and videos using neural network models. She is the granddaughter of the great doyen of drama Late Krishnan Nair, founder of 'Kala Nilayam' and Late Kodungallor Ammini amma, who was so popular during those days as an actress for her beauty, grace, ease of acting and dialogue delivery. They captured the hearts of drama lovers of Kerala, with their huge drama scope productions 'Kadamattathu Kathanar', 'Raktha Rakshasu' etc. Those were visual marvels none could even imagine those days, with technological brilliance that ensured make belief landing of aeroplane, cars on stage. Though 'Kala Nilayam' had a long layoff period after the doyen left for heavenly abode, efforts were on to revive the lost glory, by the famous actor Jagathi Sreekumar and Anantha Padmanabhan, son of Krishnan Nair and they succeeded in putting together a team in 2003. However, they could not carry on with the project due to some reason or the other. I understand that Anantha Padmanabhan, Gayathri's father, is making earnest attempts to restart the efforts and would very soon be back to enthral the audience with the upgraded technology and skills to match. My generation of art lovers were in awe with those productions of 'Kala Nilayam' and the return of the legendary name and their magnificent productions back in circuit would always be welcome.

Gayathri Padmanabhan

For Gayathri to have interest in drama is quite natural, but she is an amazing dancer as well, who was trained by great gurus like Dr.Padma Subrahmanyam, Vineeth Radhakrishnan, and Gopika Varma. Since her young age, she has been learning Bharatanatyam and later Mohiniattam from those eminent gurus. With the knowledge of her background, I knew that the production would surely have elements of classical dances and music. I was not surprised therefore, to see how the story line was woven around combining dance, music and drama making it truly a theatrical sensation. The story was adaptation of a poem by late Mahakavi Vallathol Narayana Menon's 'Kochu Seetha', which was transformed into a beautiful script by Suresh Sreestha and well directed by Manoj Narayanan.

Soulful rendering of parts of the original poem as well as other songs by Kottakkal Madhu was soothing to the ears. While the music was created by Kottakkal Madhu, the background score was given by Suresh Nandan. The music was subtle and very impressive too. The major highlight was of course the screen presence of Gayathri and her amazing energy levels enacting the character 'Chempaka Valli' with commanding precision in expressing the nuances of the character and various moods, be it when she is happily identifying herself with her idols, Seetha, Meera, Sakunthala, and Damayanthi, and then back to the distressing reality of being a devadasi, who is compelled to follow the practice of prostitution to entertain the male dominated society and finally how she decided to end her life by burning herself.

Gayathri Padmanabhan

The galore of expressions were testimony of her talent and the way she covered the entire stage was remarkable. Her dance movements were graceful at the same time typically in harmony with the nature of the character, without overdoing a bit. The skilfully narrated story, though very short, had a resounding impact primarily due to the diligent approach of Gayathri, conveying emotions with a certain level of control never letting slip over to overacting. The way she used the props provided on stage was natural and looked genuine. Overall, the program was very good and leaves a lasting impression of the artiste, her multi-faceted skills, and her wonderful energy levels. Towards the end she gives a message that the freedom of choice for women even during these modern times are governed by family compulsions, and exhorts the girls of the present day to be braver and more courageous not to surrender and submit to the fate, but fight their way out to survive with dignity.

SK Venugopal
SK Venugopal is a businessman in the field of Engineering projects, but also a singer, composer, accredited artiste in Light Music at All India Radio, auditioned and graded member of panel of speakers in Films Division of India, who is associated with Mohiniattam as accompanying musician and music composer.

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