‘Kathakali must get new-generation viewers’
Using cholliyattam for the performance makes Kathakali a more accessible and inclusive art form…
Photo: S. Gopakumar
Get Ettumanoor Kannan to talk about his work, his past and his plans, his world view, his forthcoming projects, and you recognise his passion for Kathakali. Having recently choreographed ‘Rugmangacharitam,’ Kannan is humbled by the response.
Coming into Kathakali at the age of nine, he topped four successive youth festivals. Trained under masters like Kalamandalam Vasu Pisharady and Guru Mani Madhava Chakyar, he believes the impatience of his youth was reigned in by his years with such greats. As the sole representative from India at the Asia-Pacific Performance Exchange, 2000, at the University of California, Kannan says it was an ‘eye-opener’ for the experience and exposure to the diversity and likeness he discovered among the participants.
Kannan who followed up his M.Phil in Theatre Arts with a doctorate in ‘Theatre-oriented diction in Kottayam Kathakali plays’ is back to academics, working for a Masters in Clinical Psychology, “because the insights will aid my performances too.” Excerpts from an interview
Grooming under Kalamandalam Vasu Pisharady of the Vazhenkada school of Kathakali
Vasu Pisharady Asan was a purist to the core. He was a fine combination of the guru and the performer, something that is quite difficult to achieve. Purist that he was, he was quick to identify my tendency to introduce my own bits into performances. On many occasions he would be waiting in the wings for his entry, but rarely would he forget to give me a severe pinch when I made my exit! Very early I trained under Kalanilayam Mohanakumar and after Vasu asan I spent a year with Guru Mani Madhava Chakyar to acquire the guidance in ‘mukhabhinaya.’ Particularly the sadhakam with the eyes.
Attempts to adapt Shakespeare’s plays for Kathakali
Be it Macbeth or Oedipus, I consider adapting them a part of my growing up and attempts at experimentation as an artist. A collaboration between Shakespearean idiom and our own grammar is okay, but the ideal situation is to use our own themes and work on those. A new work should be a new growth and new space for the same work.
Choreography of ‘Rugmangacharitam’
The ‘chitta’ always had a sanctity that was never tampered with, so texts rarely acquired a new approach. What I tried was to visualise a part of the story that had not been ventured into so far. Part One of the text that required the ‘vimanam,’ naturally, never was performed; therefore choreographing the vimana scene was a culmination of many years of planning. One day it seemed the pieces of the jigsaw puzzle fell in place and I could create the scene on stage. As in semiotics all stories have already been told, we are only creating a new order for re-telling the tales.
‘Cholliyattam’ as a means of familiarising viewers with the nuances of Kathakali
Very often you realise that the style itself can be its limitation too. A seasoned viewer can absorb all the elements of the form simultaneously, but the average viewer misses out on the finer elements because he is awestruck by the very presence of the character with heavy make-up and a larger than life presence. Using cholliyattam for the performance makes Kathakali a more accessible and inclusive art form, I believe.
I have taken the Kuchipidi exponent Vempati Chinna Satyam’s approach whereby he brought changes to the dance form without draining the dance of its core. The percussion support comes from the chenda and the maddalam. The essentials of Kathakali remain intact even while I use cholliyattam and I am sure there will be a space for such a performance at festivals, where Kathakali rarely gets the recognition it deserves.
As a resource person at the National School of Drama
I had taken up what was essentially a sort of ‘Kalari abhyasam’ that was earlier taught to students by Kathakali asans. While I retained the physical aspect, I also included abhinaya by integrating it with a part of the ‘Mrichakatikam.’ This blend was a success, and it was a gratifying moment to hear the Director of the School, Anuradha Kapur, remark, “You could make a change on the campus.”
With the small screen taking up entertainment time-spaces, gaining a niche for Kathakali …
In fact a 643-episode production based on the ‘Bhagavat Gita,’ is slotted for an August telecast on the Amrita channel. Every word that can be visualised is taken up and the philosophy that comes through ceases to remain abstract because it is visually presented using cholliyattam. Kathakali must get new-generation viewers and the cholliyattam format will certainly break the mindset that Kathakali is difficult to follow.
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