Well, I must say the best thing to have happened to me all this month was to have Chaitanya decide to take a long vacation and return to Bombay for a month to absorb some 'culture' as he puts it. My friends have all been rather busy with visa interviews and moving to another city while my decision to do the same has been happily delayed. However, that left me with a bit of a void in a social calendar, that finally had more free week nights than I could count. So Chaitanya and I embarked on a mission to seek out 'culture' in the city.
This was just about as much fun as it sounded. Well, okay, it was a lot of fun admittedly. Trekking to Shivaji Park every evening in peak hour traffic has been well worth the plays we caught at the Motley Theater Festival but when C. booked tickets for an evening of Kathakali at the NCPA, I was more than a little worried. The only Kathakali performance I had previously witnessed was a rather abridged-for-tourists version at what looked like a warehouse-turned-auditorium in Kottayam in our trip to Kerala last year.
And while we were suitably impressed with the exposition on make-up and costume and the intricate and intensely meaningful hand-gestures, I never expected it to be anything more than visually enticing.
That we watched the incredibly talented Kalakshetra Foundation dancers perform an episode from the Mahabharata called Keechaka Vadham (The Killing of Keechaka) and felt deeply moved was something I really had not expected.
To have managed to take the dance from being a mere visual spectacle to being a truly nuanced piece of story-telling was to the credit of the NCPA Mudra Dance Festival organisers. Behind the dancers and the musicians and the singers were two large projection screens that translated verbatim into English every line of song that made up the story, and the translations were so perfect that we could even guess at the hand-gestures that the dancers deployed from what must have been a fabulously rich vocabulary of sign language.
Although the sentences seemed clunky at first glance, containing words like "Her hair was long and shimmered in the wind like a swarm of bees." or "Her full heavy breasts ignited his lust.", we were mesmerised when what appeared like purple prose in English turned into such graceful movements and such expressive glances.
The story itself is rather straightforward. It is set in the time of the Pandava exile, when they were in hiding at the palace of King Virata. Bhima had disguised himself as a cook in the palace kitchens while Draupadi served as handmaid to the Queen. Keechaka was the Queen's young brother who fell in love with Draupadi and tried to seduce the handmaid not knowing her real identity. When Bhima finds out about Keechaka's increasingly violent advances, he vows to protect Draupadi. He then proceeds to deceive Keechaka and then in a very inventive scene, slays him.
I realise when I type it out, that in this form, it sounds rather brief and even banal. But to watch it played out with such delicate artistry by practitioners of one of India's oldest classical dance forms is a viscerally beautiful experience.
I can't help but recount the many moments that simply took my breath away. The erotic charge in the scene when Keechaka kneels before Draupadi and offers to 'massage her lotus-like feet', the playfulness with which he mimes her gracefully swaying walk, described as 'a cross between the majestic walk of an elephant and the artfulness of a beautiful swan', the frustrated rage with which he searches for her before realising she's slipped away from him yet again. I realised I was watching something really unique when we agreed we were enjoying the villain's antics too much to want the hero of the story to show up. But when he does, Bhima thoroughly acquits himself, what with the comfort he offers his distraught wife and the single-mindedness with which he chokes the life out of Keechaka's body.
We were amazed by the sheer beauty to be found by floating lazily around a story that in these days of instant gratification would have been glossed over in instants. That sometimes love, or even lust, requires a leisurely touch. Even a villain can be charming when you watch him dance mischievously around the object of his desire. His death can also mean something when the dying blow takes a twenty-minute long and visually stunning scene to be delivered.
An old-timer watching the show with us reminisced about his childhood in Kerala when Kathakali performances lasted for days and nights together. But who had the patience for that now? Three hours must feel like a lot to some busy folks, he muttered. I looked at Chaitanya's beaming face and realised what it must feel like for him to be back after so long in a country where these epics are so deeply etched in our minds that we don't even need to be told the story to know what's happening, who wins and who dies, who gets the girl in the end. Perhaps that is why he needs to fill his days here with 'culture' because he really does miss it. He misses the Mahabharata serial from DD where people shot card-board arrows at each other, where people wore faux-gold jewelry and spouted unintentionally hilarious Hindi dialogue sprinkled with a smattering of Sanskrit words.
After the performance, we heard the acclaimed dancer Dr. Sadanam Balakrishnan whose masterful performance of the titular Keechaka has me raving right now, talk about how the Mahabharata was about real people. How the Ramayana was an idealised story about ideal men and ideal kings and ideal brothers and ideal wives but the Mahabharata was about passion-plays and emotions. He also told us about how his need to bring more of these emotions and dramatic stories to Kathakali had led him to adapt Shakespearean tragedies like Othello and Macbeth, and the Greek tragedies of Euripides to dances choreographed entirely by him.
I couldn't help but grab involuntarily at dada's arm at that. He smiled back at me. The idea of watching Othello performed by Kathakali dancers made complete sense somehow.
Driving back home, along Marine Drive at midnight, I couldn't help but comment on Draupadi's lot in life, to be lusted after by so many men must have been tough. Dada chuckled, he reminded me of Irawati Karve's Yuganta, a fascinating collection of essays about the Mahabharata written in a shockingly detached, even clinical manner. I recalled the penultimate essay about Draupadi. How Karve believed that her great tragedy was not being staked in a game of dice, or being forced into a life of penury. It was falling in love with the wrong husband. While she loved Arjuna deeply, he never loved her back. It was always Bhima - strong, stubborn, selfless Bhima who loved her with all his heart. And she never realised the value of this love until it was too late.
I smiled at the passing lights of the Queen's Necklace at night, resolving to write this all out on my blog as soon as I got home, and wondering what a Kathakali adaptation of that particular tragedy would look like.