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Kerala’s ancient drama, dance and rhythm in Dubai

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Kerala's ancient drama, dance and rhythm in Dubai
Kerala's ancient drama, dance and rhythm in Dubai

By Malavika Vettath

Dubai – The staging of an unabridged Malayalam classic in the colours and drama of Kathakali; the rich repertoire of Koodiyattam, a 2,000-year-old Sanskrit theatre; graceful Mohiniattam; music in the Sopanam style and a percussion ensemble high on energy – this UAE capital saw a five-day-long celebration of ancient Kerala art forms.

The 7th International Koodiyattam and Kathakali Festival (IKKF) saw an impressive line-up of top-notch artistes in different fields. Organised by a fraternity of art lovers working to promote Kerala’s performing arts, the festival was held during the UAE’S National Day celebrations ending Monday night.

The mornings began with Ambalapuzha Vijayakumar rendering soulful ‘Sopaanasangeetham’ or devotional songs re! ndered at the steps of the sanctum sanctorum of Kerala temples! accompanied by the ‘idakka’ percussion instrument.

“He filled the auditorium with bakhti and bhava (devotion and emotion),” said a music aficionado here.

The highlight of the festival was the staging of the unabridged Malayalam classic “Nalacharitham”, the 18th-century magnum opus of Unnayi Warrier, describing the famed love story of protagonists Nala and Damayanti in the highly stylised Kathakali classical dance-drama style noted for its dramatic make-up and elaborate costumes.

“Nalacharitham was presented in its entirety perhaps for the first time on the same stage on four consecutive nights without omitting any scenes from the original ‘aattakatha’ (performance text),” Remesan Nambissan, one of the organisers, told IANS.

Nala and Damayanti’s marital bliss, separation and reunion were depicted in a very nuanced style with noted artists, including Kalamandalam Shanmukhadas, Peeshappilli Rajeevan, Ettumanoor P Kannan, Kottakkal Devadasan! and Sadanam Bhasi donning key roles.

The star performer, however, was Kathakali stalwart Kalamandalam Gopi, who enthralled the audience with his inimitable portrayal of ‘Bahukan’ in the prescribed striking blue costume and make-up on the concluding day of the festival.

Gopi Aashan, as he is fondly known, is acclaimed for his distinct style and a career spanning 40 years.

The Koodiyattam performances were highly enriching. The oldest surviving Sanskrit theatre, Koodiyattam has been proclaimed by Unesco as part of the Oral and Intangible Heritage of Humanity and is often considered the precursor of Kathakali.

Margi Sathi and Kalamandalam Sangeeth Chakyar beautifully brought forth the ancient theatre’s stylised acting and use of Sanskrit verses as dialogue gestural vocabulary through the plays “Asokavanikaankam” and “Parnashalaankam”.

Sathi also displayed her mastery over ‘Nangiarkoothu’, a women’s-only offshoot of Koodiyattam dati! ng 1,500 years through her depiction of “Kannagicharitham”, based on th! e Tamil epic ‘Silapathikaram’.

Her enactment of Kannagi’s fury that set fire to the city of Madurai captivated audiences.

Mohiniattam danseuse Methil Devika also narrated the story of Kannagi and her transformation to the stature of a goddess worshipped by many in Tamil Nadu and neighbouring Kerala in her own distinct style involving pure dance. She also danced to an unusual composition by Swati Thirunal, the 19th Century composer-king of Travancore, describing the devotion of Bharata towards his elder brother Lord Rama.

Most of the festival nights were brought alive by a power-packed ‘thayamabaka’, a percussion ensemble featuring the popular Kerala drum called the chenda and cymbals called elathalam. Mattanoor Srikanth and Sreeraj, the sons of the chenda doyen Mattanoor Sankaran Kutty Marar, wove intricate patterns on the drums and stirred the packed auditorium with their complex rhythmic beat cycles.

The concluding day of the “Nalachari! tham” provided a photo-finish for the festival with as many as nine Kathakali characters on stage, leaving the audience spellbound.

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