A night of stories by Rahul Warrier

I witnessed a night-long Kathakali performance that featured four stories by some of the biggest and most respected practitioners of the art form today. While words hardly do justice to the performance, what I attempt here is to chronicle the sequence of events that took place. The explosion of colours, music, rhythm, emotions and expressions left the spectator in me exhausted – yet enthused.

The stage awaits the story tellers – the “aatta vilakku” is lit before the performance begins, and stays up all night along with the spell-bound audience, mesmerized by the stories unfurling on stage.
Sri Kottakkal Chandrashekara Varier, one of the most proficient practicing artists of the art form today, is the very picture of concentration as he prepares himself for his role. He has been honoured with the Padmasri puraskar.
The transformation is a slow and laborious process, but without doubt complete and consuming.
I stood by and watched transfixed, as a mortal was recast as a celestial being!
When on stage they leave the ordinary behind. The process of make-up or “chutti-kuthal” seemed to be more an exercise in meditation and introspection than a cosmetic effort.
Tools of the trade – nothing you will not find around your house!
The juniors help each other with their faces. If the performance is the telling of a story, then this is when the characters are crafted.
The costumes are elaborate and arresting. Getting into one, however, is not an easy task. The troupe is accompanied by helpers who assist the artists, in addition to managing the multitude of assortments, materials and accessories.
The distinctive curtain that is held up before the performers arrive on stage is characteristic of a Kathakali performance. According to protocol, a night-long Kathakali performance must begin with the “Keli Kottu” or the drum recital, which also serves as a herald for people in the vicinity, announcing the start of the performance.
The performance begins with a preface, “Purappadu”.
The “Purappadu” typically features Lord Krishna. The green colour on the face (pachcha vesham) signifies a god!
Sri Kottakkal Chandrashekara Varier cuts an imposing figure as King Rugmaangathan – a devout disciple of Lord Vishnu who is drawn into the web of deceit spun by Mohini, as per the machinations of an envious Lord Brahma!
A just and noble ruler, the King is a religious practitioner of the ‘ekadashi’ fast and abstinence, aimed at welfare of the kingdom – a ritual that Brahma intends to disrupt employing Mohini. She extracts from the king, a promise to have all her wishes fulfilled whenever she may ask, before getting married to him.
One Ekadashi day, Mohini expresses her desire to be with the king – which puts him in a quandary. He is bound by oath to grant her wish, but cannot, if he wants to observe Ekadashi. A fine predicament, thanks to Lord Brahma.
A horrified king learns of the alternative Mohini suggests. The King and queen are to behead their son without shedding a single tear. If they carry out this task, the king is free to continue observing the Ekadashi ritual.
No amount of pleading will change the conditions a resolute Mohini has laid out. She has affections for the king, and has been led to believe by Brahma that the king will choose to break his Ekadashi fast, thereby saving the life of his son. Little does she know…
After denial and pleading comes acceptance. A stone-faced king Rugmaangathan finally has to acknowledge what the fates have in store for him.
A distraught father is consoled by the brave son, who places family honour and the word of the king above his own life!
As the king is about to behead his son, Lord Vishnu appears and stops him – and praises him for his sense of righteousness. The king and queen are granted salvation, the noble son ascends to the throne, and Mohini departs – having fulfilled her duties. Blessings all around!
The second story, “Ambarisha charitam”, had as the central character the angry sage Durvasa.
The demoness Krithika, born of the locks of the angry sage!
Durvasa sets the demoness on King Ambarish, on the pretext of disrespect. Little does he realise that the king, who is a staunch devotee, has been granted the Sudarshana Chakra by the Lord for his protection!
Sensing trouble, the Sudarshana Chakra arrives to protect the king from the demoness. As you can see, it does not look very happy with the proceedings.
The age-old theme of battle between Good and Evil is enacted to perfection.
Having vanquished Krithika, the Sudarshana Chakra sets itself upon the perpetrator, the unfortunate Sage.
The fight comes to the audience, with the frantic Durvasa running to every corner possible, begging for mercy (even to members of the audience) but being relentlessly chased by an enraged Sudarshana Chakra. The helpless sage eventually crawls back to the stage, seeking audience with the Lord. The jaw-dropping performance of the former Kalamandalam Principal who enacted the role of Durvasa left the audience in a state of trance. I watched as the sheer power of the performance took over.
Yet another demoness makes an appearance in the next story – Narakasura.
One of the best artists ever to enact the role of a female character – Sri Maargi Vijayakumar.
New faces, new stories. The night goes on. Having been witness to this performance extraordinaire, I now find it difficult to accept that these artists are mere mortals. That they lead ordinary, difficult lives once dawn breaks. Having tasted divine adoration and respect when in character, why would they want to come back to the real world? Kathakali is an art form that transcends theatre – the attempt is not to bring the story to you, but to absorb your being into the story. The story-teller becomes the story. Then, there is no audience – There is only singular undivided attention.