Saturday, April 28, 2012

Of Love and other Demons

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.


Arundhati said...

Your writings are wonderful, no doubt about it.. but the titles of yours posts are even more!!

Arumugam said...

Wow,the most perceptive piece of writing I have read!

Remember your FB comment on specialisation and where I lamented on silo like approaches.You definitely are an exception:)

I mean,are you really a doc too,on top of all this:)

Kunal said...

I have never watched a Kathakali Dance performance(that despite being in Kerala twice..) so I am in position to comment on the intricacies of the dance. But the way you have explained the performance..zeal and passion..I almost felt like I was watching the performance myself..though I know that that would have been a wow moment indeed...

And I am reading currently 'The Immortals of Meluha' and somehow I also feel that these all stories took place sometime in the past and were literally magnum opus of their lifetimes...their actions and reactions left to the scrutiny for us mortals..

And your paragraph about the villain being attractive and killed in the end reminds me of my own lines..which I wrote sometime back...

If Your Life is a Movie.
I am the villain you secretly Admire.
In the end, he dies for you.
Because, that’s what you openly Desire.

The Audience Applauds when he dies.
But, he knows there is a tear in your eye.
He was never rough. He just acted tough.
I am a villain. Its not easy for me to cry.


Kunal said...

I meant I am in 'no' the above comment.. :-)

Gustaf Valström said...

Do forgive my ignorance Kari but this is the dance with the masks correct? This is a beautifully written post and the way you have described it all is very vivid and immediate.

We also have old epics in Scandinavia. Like the English have Beowulf. Ours are about the old Norse gods and they are based on folk poetry. A very well-known one is called The Saga is of the Völsungs. Perhaps you have heard of it? The hero of the story is a dragon-slayer if you can believe that. :))

Perhaps some day I shall return to India and watch this enchanting classical dance first-hand. Until then I have this great post to read. :))

--Sunrise-- said...

Your writing makes me forget myself and my silly troubles! Please don't ever stop blogging, it's bloggers like you that make blogging and connecting with strangers across the world worth it.

I have never seen Kathakali, but I have learned Bharata Natyam for four years and I can imagine the strength and simultaneous grace that must go into the choreography of these dances. Your title is truly, truly awesome! And also - forgive my ignorance as well but - where does Gabriel Garcia Marquez come into this? *puzzled look*

Sakshi said...

Oh, well, this blog reminded me of Anita Nair's book- The Mistress. That is also set in the back drop of Kathakali and this is one of the MOST talked bout piece that is performed in Kathakali. :)
Well, your description was as poetic, I think better than what she had written :)

About Draupadi, I agree with Karve, I think, for her, the biggest tragedy was- to be always be in the wrong side of love, if I may say so :)

Tangled up in blue... said...

I do, I do. Thank you! :) I pick the ones that feel most appropriate in my gut. :)

Arumugam, :) :) :) Well, I try to be and do as much as I possibly can. Have you read the poem We Are Many by Pablo Neruda? It's kind of my theme. ;)

Kunal, WOW! That's a rather interesting bit of verse you've written. The villain dies so others may feel better about themselves. A sort of self-sacrifice if you may. An odd sort of noblesse to attribute to a villain who by definition is ignoble. Reminds me a lot of Snape from Harry Potter actually! :) And thank you! :)

Tangled up in blue... said...

Gustaf, thank you! :) Well, they're not masks strictly. They paint their faces rather. But they do have marvellous (and rather heavy) costumes. And seriously, dragonslayers? Whoa! That is seriously cool! :D Hadn't heard of it, no. But shall check out now. :)

Sunrise, thank you! :) And frankly it is readers like you whose comments make me want to write more stuff here. As I've been saying to a lot of my new friends recently, I'm really really lucky to have met so many fantastic people in the virtual world. :) And haha, you noticed the labels? Nice! Well, a couple years ago I read a novel called Of Love and other Demons by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, the name of which became the title of this post. So, I felt it would not be fair to not tip my hat to him for coming up with such an amazing title, yes? :)

Sakshi, oh man! Thank you for that absolutely awesome comment! :) I really want to read that book now. Sounds very intriguing! And 'on the wrong side of love' - that's such an incredibly lovely phrase! :) Thank you, Sakshi! :)