A new Kathakali production rich in innovation

‘Palazhi Madhanam’, a power-packed presentation, was premiered at Kerala Kalamandalam Deemed University

There is a joke in Kathakali that all that a chuvanna tadi, a villainous character, needs to do is to look menacing, make some noise, and get killed in the end. There are, however, a few meaty roles, such as Sugreeva in ‘Balivadham’ and Jarasandha in ‘Rajasooyam’. ‘Palazhi Madhanam’, or the Churning of Palazhi, which debuted at Kerala Kalamandalam Deemed University recently, is a welcome addition to this short list.

A power-packed presentation by Kalamandalam’s Vadakkan Kalari brought out Kathakali’s nritta aspect with brisk kalasams or pure dance movements backed by some vibrant drumming. It offered immense scope for both nritta and abhinaya to Bali, a chuvanna tadi or red-bearded character. Most important, this new play was rich in innovation while strictly adhering to the grammar and syntax of Kathakali.

The story is about Bali stepping in to relieve the gods and demons who have become tired while churning the ocean for nectar. The script has just two other characters — Indra, who invites his son Bali to help the gods, and Matali, Indra’s charioteer. Not much is known about this attakatha or its author, though some believe Kunchan Nambiar, who lived in the 18th century, wrote it.

Much of the text including the beginning and the end has been lost. Yet the core of the play, lead-choreographed by Kalamandalam Neeraj and presented in four scenes, offered a great viewing experience. As Neeraj took pains to point out, it was a collaborative effort by the entire team, as many of the members are his seniors and gurus.

The play, which runs for nearly 2.5 hours, starts with Indra asking Matali to go and seek Bali’s help. Kalamandalam Shanmughan as Indra and Harinarayanan as Matali excelled. Shanmughan’s slow-paced kalasams after every charanam in the first scene was a treat to watch.

The central character of Bali, played by Kalamandalam Pradeep, was a bundle of energy, unleashed with vigorous kalasams and excellent expressions.

Much of the credit for this successful production goes to the percussionists, led by chenda artiste Kalamandalam Balasundaran, who were innovative in varying both the rhythmic structure and tempo. For example, Matali putting together his chariot in the first scene was done in panchari, a six-beat cycle, executed to perfection by Harinarayanan. Another instance was Scene Two, in which Bali thrashes the saptasalas or seven trees to relieve stress as his palms are itching for a fight, where the variation in tempo was used to great effect. Bali single-handedly churning the ocean holding the head and tail of the snake Vasuki in each hand in the last scene was set in panchari to top off a rhythmic feast.

The team included Venu Mohan and Ravishankar on the chenda, and Haridas, Venu and Sreejith on the maddalam. Lead vocalist Kalamandalam Vinod, who also set the music and ragas, was supported by Viswas. Make-up and greenroom support were provided by Sivadasan, Sukumaran, Ramesh, Arun and Sohan.

Only in the second part of the last scene did the piece seem to weaken a little. Many events are enacted here but were run through merely with mudras. At least some could have been described in detail, giving a fine actor such as Pradeep an opportunity to reveal his skills. For example, the episode of Vasuki throwing up venom, Siva swallowing it, and Parvathi ensuring the poison doesn’t go down his throat could have been dwelt upon.

The incidents described in the dandakam slokas such as Airawata the elephant and the goddesses Lakshmi and Tara emerging from Palazhi seemed a bit rushed. Though dandakams — slokas set to a certain meter and used to narrate a series of events — are traditionally not elaborated, some innovation in detailing could have been tried out.

‘Palazhi Madhanam’ reveals the potential for new productions and innovations, which Kalamandalam University must surely strive to encourage.

The author, a retired journalist, writes on Kerala’s performing arts.

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