The art of storytelling

In recent times, when a man dresses up as a woman, it is unfortunately often looked upon as pansy or even mildly vulgar. But when Kottakkal Sivaraman, draped in his exquisite costume performs Kathakali, taking on several female roles — as Damayanti, Poothana, Kunthi, Sita — one is instantly mesmerised by the intense power and varying shades of his dramatic emotions. 

In the earlier days, Kathakali, one of the more popularly known dance forms of Kerala, was mostly performed at temples, through the night. Wide-eyed audiences would watch eagerly, savouring every expression, every colour that lit up the night’s darkness. Against frenzied drum beats and evocative vocals, Kathakali artistes would enact epic tales to an engrossed audience who would be transported to a different world. The dancers, along with their musicians and make-up artistes would make their way from one temple to another, usually in groups. It was back in those days  when women were seldom encouraged to participate in public affairs that male artistes began to portray female characters. The stories being narrated were also largely male-centric.
 
It was Kottakkal Sivaraman who helped break this tradition and eventually elevated the status of female roles in Kathakali to a point of esteem, which he still considers his most significant contribution to the art form. Minukku, M R Rajan’s documentary film that was aired on NDTV 24x7 last week, zooms in on Sivaraman — with his elaborately done make-up on and also without a trace of it, Sivaraman the Kathali artiste and an ordinary person — if it is possible to untangle and separate the two.  
Shot and directed imaginatively, Minukku gives us a glimpse into the personal life of Sivaraman, while wandering every once in a way into graceful Kathakali performances of his. The film’s elegant sense of aesthetics, along with the poetic rhythm that it possesses, makes it a work of art. Ever since the idea of making Sivaraman’s biography had crept into Rajan’s head, he had been certain of one thing — he didn’t want to stick to a conventional form of narration. So he brought in two other well known artistes — Nedumudi Venu, a versatile South Indian film actor and E P Unny, a skilled cartoonist — and developed an interesting structure, where they interact closely with the legendary artiste. “I took two to three years to develop this idea. I wanted the narration to play out as an exchange of ideas between two friends,” says Rajan.

Towards the beginning of Minukku, Venu, the narrator of the film and an ardent connoisseur of Kathakali, is shown watching 70-year-old Sivaraman portray Draupadi while she’s being disrobed, “with a tinge of jealousy and reverence.” Later, the two are shown walking alongside — discussing greenery, bird habits, the concept of harmony and concluding that there are a lot of performance skills to be learnt from nature itself — while in the background, birds and insects can be heard singing and humming. Unny’s black-and-white drawings of Sivaraman are scattered throughout the film. While Sivaraman looks into the distance, dreamily, Unny sizes him up with his quick, sharp glances, indulging his pen in a bit of doodling. His candid sketches manage to capture Sivaraman in a range of moods, in his most natural setting.
For Sivaraman’s 70th birthday, Venu speaks at his felicitation ceremony in his village, where crowds had gathered. “In recent times, Sivaraman has been telling me — ‘I have grown old. My Sakuntala, Damayanti and Panchali are not as beautiful as before.’ I told him, but the big picture is not everything. Our focus is on the eyes. If the eyes are expressive, we forget everything else.” Just as Venu says this, the audience breaks into loud applause.

Looking back at his years in performance arts, Sivaraman, who started his training in Kathakali at the age of 13, speaks with enviable dedication about his lifelong passion. “My Guru had a vision. How he moulded me... otherwise Sivaraman would have become a wastrel because those were days of serious performers. Maybe he decided to cast me in female roles to keep me wedded to Kathakali.” But even today, in mainstream Kathakali, most of the performing artistes are men. 

Minukku was Rajan’s attempt at documenting the life of a passionate Kathakali artiste, a record that could be preserved. But it was also aimed at increasing awareness among audiences about the importance of local performing arts. In the recent past, one has been hearing about Kathakali artistes who have had to resort to performing in tourist centres, where they are required to compress and cut short their sessions to cater to tourists with flimsy attention spans. Clearly, the practical way out, perhaps even a matter of survival.

Is Kathakali a dying art? “Not at all. There are active Kathakali clubs all over Kerala. Performances happen often and institutions to train artists are also opening. But it is true that there isn’t enough support for the art form. Most of the current artistes perform only out of passion. But they usually have other jobs as well,” responds Rajan. And you wonder, why must Kathakali or any other form of local art form remain tucked away in brochures that aim only at increasing tourism? Why are we disinterested in our local heritage and culture? Is it possible to think these thoughts aloud without sounding too parochial?    

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