“through the act of living, the discovery of oneself is made concurrently with the discovery of the world around us. . ."

Saturday, September 25, 2010

Come, Come closer, Malini!

The air was still; the night sultry and humid. The crowd, five hundred or more, sat, lay, stood or just slouched or hung around. Among those who sat cross-legged or knees resting on the chin or legs pulled behind – there was not enough space on the sand-spread ground to be expansive in posture – some slept open-mouthed or curled to a foetus. Those who were awake, looked like zombies, for their eyes were focused on the man and woman on stage, dressed in a totally other-worldly style, The man was beseeching, bidding, requesting, begging, groveling, commanding, lecherously inviting the woman – ‘Come, Malini, come closer to me!’

A quarter of a century ago, my all-consuming passion was for Kathakali, the traditional dance-drama of Kerala. I was fortunate to witness the performances of the great masters of those days – dancers such as Guru Chengannur Raman Pillai, Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, Kalamandalam Gopi, Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair, Keezhpadam Kumaran Nair, Sadanam Krishnankutty, Pallipuram Gopalan Nair, Nelliyode Vasudevan Namboothiri and singers like Kalamandalam Unnikrishna Kurup, Kalamandalam Shankaran Embranthiri, Kalamandalam Hyderali, Venmani Haridas and maestros on Chenda and Maddalam like, Kalamandalam Krishankutty Poduval and Kalamandalam Appukutty Poduval - and many many more. I give their full name and title of their school here out of great respect and admiration. Most of the names above are no more – like my favourite phrase in Malayalam – Kalayavanikakkullil maranju - they have vanished behind the curtains of time.

Kathakali Mosaic by Rahul Sadagopan

The scene described above is typical- could have been any one of the innumerable performances I watched in those days. The programmes began at 2100 hrs in the temple grounds and would go on till the wee hours of the morning. The audience, packed at the beginning would thin around midnight; only the true aficionados (they call us Kathakali Bhrandan – Kathakali Nuts) would sit up wide-eyed, chewing pan or smoking beedis throughout the night.

One such night I will never forget was the performance of Keechaka Vadhom at a temple near Kochi. The main singer was the late Kalamandalam Unnikrishna Kurup. In Act II, before the raising of curtain, there is a Dhandagam or a verse in Sanskrit, followed by the lifting of curtains and Keechaka and Panchali appear and dance for the lines, ‘Harinakshi’. The Dhandagam or sloka, starting ‘Sabhajana vilochanai’ is a favourite among the buffs; and it was Unnikrishna Kurup’s best. The audience sat hypnotized, glued to the rendition. As the final notes sank to a stop, the audience reluctantly woke up from the trance. And then, a wonderful thing happened. In one voice, we demanded an encore. It was totally unheard of. Keechakan, played by the greatest living dancer, Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair, was waiting in the wings. The organizers, succumbing to the demand, requested Kurup to sing it once again. Perhaps that was one unforgettable evening in Kurup’s life too. He sang again; and we, the blessed of the blessed, listened in rapture…

Later, Ramankutty Nair Asan wiggled his eyebrows and sang ‘Guaye…’ at Kottakkal Sivaraman looking cross and bitter, and asked her – ‘Come, Malini, come closer to me!’ ‘O jewel among women, come closer to me! Here, let me massage your worn feet! My humble abode has been blessed today by the touch of your lotus petal-like feet! Come and sit on this bed and let us make love!’

When I visited home at Trivandrum once in a month, I would go to my sister’s. My favourite niece, Malini, pretty as a picture and 5 or 6 years old, would open the door. I would strike a stance like Ramankutty Nair Asan and croon to her – Enn arukil varika nee, Malini!’ Malini, now 34 years old, Senior executive in a 5-star hotel and mother of a boy, would blush and grin happily.

********* Balachandran V, Trivandrum 25.09.2010


  1. I've had a glimpse of the art form, nothing more. I haven't had the opportunity to witness a whole act till date. Your post inspires me to. LOL on your special enactment for Malini :D

  2. I have never witnessed Kathakali before- my experience is limited to tv documentaries only.I find this dance n drama art form very fascinating--the costume,the make-up,expressions ,dance ...all of it.
    The collage you showed here is wonderful.
    Please say Hi to Malini from my side when you meet her next (right after you say 'Enn arukil varika nee, Malini!’).

    Loved the post.

  3. Its pretty nice. Every malayalee has a memory associated with kathakali. All the best to you

  4. @RGB: Yes, Kathakali is one great something! How I used to fantazise myself as an artiste! In the boozing sessions of my younger days, I would sing and dance Kathakali before the howling audience of my friends! :)

    @Kavitha: Yes, she is still my favourite. I still think of her as my daughter. At her wedding she asked ME to hold her hand and take her around the mandapa, in the place of her father, very much alive and looking peeved. And as we walked around, she hissed at me - ' Why couldn't you wear a better shirt?" :D I smiled at her, this vagabond of an uncle, through tears...

    @Aswathi: Thanks! Visit often.

    @Sujata: Hope all the teeth-breaking names didn't tire you! :D

  5. In my childhood, I had seen Kathakali performed at the courtyard of our Kavil Bhagavathi Temple, at Changanacherry. We used to spend our evenings at the Aalthara of that temple. During Chirappu, there would be at least two or three Kathakali performances. My best friend Gopalakrishnan was an expert at all traditional art forms, and used to explain all the sequences to me. Unlike other art forms, it needs some background information and a studied interest to understand it, and later to enjoy the art in its fullness. The night’s stadium had a clear star studded sky, cool breeze rustling through the gigantic Aal marom, and we would sit in the darkness, to watch those great performances in the dim light of the brightly polished brass lamp. I understood your emotional involvement from the way you had written.
    I believe every art form should be preserved and performed in the original form it was envisaged. Times have changed. Kathakali is now performed everywhere, and on any kind of stage, under brightly lit halogen lamps, modern sound systems and an oil lamp kept somewhere, for names sake. I don’t know how many in the audience understand or enjoy it.
    Kathakali is the soul of Kerala. Like our people, it is losing its soul.

  6. Doc, what you said is absolutely true. Even 25 years ago, Kathakali started becoming commercial. We had the 1-hour fast food Kathakali at Ernakulam, just for the foreign tourists. Changing lifestyle of the Malayalaee forced changes in Kathakali too. People started preferring the 3-hour capsules. Temples would rather have disco-dancing or Gaana mela than Kathakali.

    I forgot to add the big brass lamps and the humble green rooms. Till the Seventies when Kathakali began the revival of popular interest, the life of the artistes was miserable. A friend in Cherthala once told me what he saw - Pallippuram Gopalan Nair, after a night-long performance,was given ONE Rupee, A Mundu and Edangzhi rice - one kg. He said he cannot forget the scene -the dignity and humility with which Gopalan Nair accepted the wages and withdrew.

    oh well, I could go on and on...

  7. True.There are certain art forms which are inseparably connected with our history, traditions and culture,and deeply embedded in us with emotions which are unique to us.It is impossible to translate our emotions to any other languages.

    All artists of the traditional art forms suffered. And still do.The new generation can only enjoy reality shows and Indipop. Indian music is finished. Some of the musical directors who did that crime have been highly decorated by the government. People are afraid even to talk about them.
    The music created for CWG by our renowned director AR sounded some thing like African woo-do song.And he was paid a whopping 20 million for the single number,it is heard.
    Serial actors make more money than many other professionals.Film actors charge unheard of amounts. The pathetic thing is that these so called superstars who have amassed undeserving wealth,never bother to help ailing or poverty stricken artists.
    A revival is almost impossible,because the newer generation has not inherited that finer emotions. They grow up in a totally different environment,and are not to be blamed.
    There is no justice in this world.

  8. Wonderful account. i can relate to it to a certain extent because of my recent stay at Trivandrum and opportunity to watch plenty of performances of popular and not very popular art forms. my humble appreciation stems from the animated descriptions and graphic portrayals shared by my friend and life partner....


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