The Bangalore Club for Kathakali and The Arts (BCKA) presented the performance of Duryodhanvadham by an all-female Kathakali troupe. For the uninitiated, this is a pioneering move, because Kathakali dancers have been historically male. The traditional reason given is that the art form requires rigorous physical training for over 6 years, and women are not able to commit to it. Beating all odds, the performers put together this show on the eve of Mother’s Day.
The story play was based on scenes from the Mahabharata wherein a game of dice between the oldest siblings from the two male cousin groups, Kauravas and Pandavas, egged on by the former’s uncle, Shakuni, resulted in the latter’s banishment. These scenes are pivotal to the plotline as Draupadi, the common wife of the Pandavas, is humiliated in front of a male-dominated courtroom, as a result of her husband’s folly. In turn, she lashes out with curses that spell out the gruesome fratricides of Duryodhana, the eldest Kaurava, and his brother, Dushasana.
This was the first time I was watching a Kathakali performance. Since the time I saw its representation as part of a montage on Asianet as a child, and as a stand-in for diversity in an advertisement for a milk brand, I was enamoured by this art form. What was this style of dance that was restricted to men? How did gender affect performance and the mode of storytelling? As a teenager, I encountered it once again through the eyes of Rahel in Arundhati Roy’s God of Small Things, whose character laments the reduction of this elaborate art to suit the tourist-y interests of clients at 5-star hotels, who supposedly prefer short performances.
Duryodhanvadham was performed in a little over 3 hours.
Before diving further into the review, I must clarify that a Kathakali performance, to me, consists of not just the dancer-actors. There is also a team of percussionists (Sadanam Jithin & Kalamandalam Ganesh, and Kalamandalam Aneesh on the maddalam) who are responsible for the chendu-kottu (beating of the traditional drum set) and the singers (Kalanilayam Rajeevan and Harishankar), who narrate the story through song in Malayalam (although in a classical dialect: my limited understanding of the language seemed to hold me in good stead ). In this troupe, the dancer-actors were all women, and the rest of the group were all men. Perhaps there is a-way to go before we can expect an entirely gender-mixed Kathakali performance.
Another thing that stood out to me was the gender of the characters portrayed. Ever since I read Chitra Banerjee’s The Palace of Illusions, I realised how our epics are focused on the public lives, conversations, and decisions of men, while the women were relegated to receivers of fate, with seemingly little sense of agency besides curses and prayers.
In the four scenes adapted to the stage for this production, it was noteworthy that Draupadi was the only female character. Traditionally, she would have been played by a male performer, as would the others. However, the tables were turned here, and the men were played by women, as was the female character of Draupadi, which was, in my opinion, more authentic and moving as a consequence. However, it was still evident that these were men’s tales being re-told, albeit with the involvement of women, which is the only pioneering break in tradition. Moreover, if one observed closely, the affect of the male characters were a lot more aggressive and dramatic than Draupadi’s. This was emphasised by the deep-throated cries and bellows that the actors would release to add to the completeness of the performatory experience—Draupadi’s character had no such vocal performance (at least not one that I noticed). Her story was entirely told through the vocalists’ narrative. Perhaps one must take respite in that this is only the start to breaking gender norms and stereotype in the regional art form.
I sat through the 3-hour production in awe and rapture, as it was an intensely moving performance. The scene where Draupadi (Dr. Haripriya Namboodiri) is dragged out from, presumably, her place behind the blinds from where the royal women observe the courtroom, brought the drama of the stage to the audience. Draupadi was standing at the entrance of the hall, and Dushasana alights from the stage to drag her to the centre of the sabha. The scene is dramatic and brought out Draupadi’s anguish powerfully, as the actors used the space between the rows where the audience was seated, to convey her struggle against Dushasana. By the time Draupadi was dragged to the stage, I was in tears watching her state of helplessness.
Yet another striking feature is the focus of training required to play each of the characters. Unlike in cinema, no protagonist’s presence is more pronounced than the other. While Dushasana (Sharanya Premadas) seems like a courtier on the sidelines in the first act, wherein Shakuni (Purnima Menon) and Duryodhana (Parvathi Menon) are convincing a hesitant Yudhishtir (Arya Parapoore) to indulge in the fateful tournament, his character is thrown into the limelight during Draupadi’s humiliation and later, his wrestle with Bheema, and eventual death.
The duel scene between Bheema and Dushasana was primal and fierce. The portrayal shows the nature of fight and the state of weapon technology. Bheema is redeeming Draupadi’s humiliation here, and besides crude batons, neither uses any sophisticated weapons in this duel. While Bheema is killing Dushasana, the latter’s slow and painful death is depicted through a prolonged struggle beautifully portrayed by the actors. The actor playing Bheema, Arya Parapoore, portrayed the cathartic relish with which the character takes revenge, and the regulated eye movements, which are characteristic of Kathakali, was used with great success to this effect.
The show’s chief guest was Padma Bhushan Dr. K. Radhakrishnan, who served as the Chairman at ISRO until 2014, and under whose leadership the Mangalyaan-I mission was successfully launched. He was introduced as not just a man of science, but as a trained Kathakali artist himself and Carnatic vocalist, making him quite the apt patron to inaugurate the production alongside others.
There was free entry at the show, even though the seating rows in the centre were reserved for key patrons. Keeping with the ground-breaking female troupe, this seemed like an egalitarian step towards making the art form more inclusive and accessible. Perhaps in the coming times we will also witness women’s and other genders’ rendition of these lore on stage. Introducing non-male vocalists to the team as well as shifting the focus from the Kshatriya and other ‘upper’ caste-fuelled courtroom drama to the tales of the bahujan, will also add layers of inclusivity. The infamous social network of the caste-privileged woman is evident in the scene where Lord Krishna (Pramila Vijayan), a prominent courtier and member of the royal family, comes to Draupadi’s rescue as Dushasana tries to publicly disrobe her. Here, we witness Draupadi’s personal relationship with Lord Krishna, an upper caste man with evident power and sway over the main agents in the Mahabharata, who pacifies Draupadi and convinces her that this humiliating incident, although deeply personal and hurtful to her sentiments and sensibilities, was part of a larger, grander narrative, wherein the men’s public victory on the battlefield is seen as the ultimate public declaration of political, social, and most importantly, spiritual power.
Personally, the highlight of the performance was the costume construction and elaborate greasepaint that serves as makeup for the performers. Kathakali, in itself, is a patient, slow art that delves into the recesses of each emotion of the character portrayed on stage, and to do that in such an ornate fashion is quite incredible.
Keziah Ann, a 23-year-old Malayali raised in Bahrain, was among the attendees. This was her first time watching a Kathakali performance and she said: “In a time where urbanisation has [conditioned] us about what’s appropriate and cool, we have become so ignorant of our culture and heritage, that we are gradually beginning to form prejudices against our own kind. The least we can do is to make art a part of our lives to unite and remind ourselves of our lineages, and that’s what Kathakali took me back to.”
Perhaps the time has come for us, as a people, to revisit traditional arts and take them apart for what they are. A connection with the psychological legacy we carry forward with us, should help us infuse it with elements that represent more inclusive values; or at least, that’s what I took away from this show.
Tejaswi Subramanian is a senior sub editor at Qrius.
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