Friday, December 17, 2010

Nalacharitham in Kathakali

I was reminded of the time I had posted the story of Nala Damayanthi as presented in Kathakali long ago on Sulekha blogs. It took me some time to hunt those pages, and then I thought why not repost them here. And so here it is:

Kathakali is a unique total theatre involving the integration of the major fine arts: Dance, Music, Histrionics, Literature, Painting, and Sculpture.

Kathakali as is performed today, is a consequence of systematic improvisations along the prescribed canons of the Natyashastra .

Kathakali is not only “NRITTA” (rhythmic footwork and postures); apart from seasoning with facial expressions to make it “NRITHYA”, it goes a step further through “Interpretation” into the realms of “NATYA”. This is why Kathakali is considered as the perfect offshoot of “NATYASHASTRA”- The Science Of Acting. This art form is a harmonious compilation of music, dance and rhythm.
During a performance, apart from direct interpretation of the lyrics, an actor gets adequate opportunity at “MANODHARMAM”- using Mudras and Abhinaya to convey images beyond the lyrics.
I am attempting to recount the story of Nala and Damayanthi as interpreted in the classical art form of Kathakali. The story is enacted in 4 parts through 4 nights- It is a beautiful experience- this story covers almost all aspects of this art form- more than the actual story line, it is the nuances, the art technique employed- the depth and finesse of the art by itself that is actually enchanting- I am not sure how effectively I may be able to bring out these aspects of Kathakali through this venture, but I wish to try.
The enactment is done by way of mudras, facial expressions- the story- lyrics is provided by singers in the background- onstage- the scenery, emotions, every aspect is expressed non verbally- it is an amazing spectacle- the larger than life costumes adds to the ethereal effect- ( amma sent me the details of the story as enacted in Kathakali- and I am posting it here, hoping you all will enjoy it.)

During the time of the Pandava’s exile after the infamous game of dice, Yudhishtira laments to Brihadaswa muni, that “None else would be as wretched and unfortunate as me..”. To this statement, the sage relates the story of Nala- the king of Nishadha.
Nala was a handsome, noble, well loved king. He gets to know about the beauty of Damayanti- the princess of Kundinapuram- in Vidarbha, and wishes to make her his consort. One day, sage Narada makes a visit- and the latter enumerates the various qualities of Damayanti. He does not forget to mention that she would make the ideal queen for our already besotted king . Narada muni has always been known to catalyse preordained destinies- it is upto him to prod the pace of fate.

The opening scene:
The love lorn King having lost interest in the royal affairs, entrusts responsibilities to his ministers and seeks refuge in the palace gardens, hoping for solace. He tries to engage himself in various activities like playing various musical instruments, trying to enjoy the scenic beauty of the royal garden- here, the actor playing Nala gets the opportunity to display his histrionics.
Well, Nala does not find solace in any activity, he is in the throes of love- and then suddenly he sees a beautiful, golden swan dozing by the lake in the garden. Nala creeps upto the sleeping bird to catch the swan to keep it as a pet. The swan wakes up and is alarmed to see the king- the King lets the swan escape after a charming chase- here the actor playing the swan ( the facial make –up is intricate and beautiful) comes to the fore- the king befriends the swan- and the swan grateful for not being taken into captivity wants to return the favor in some way. Nala, confides his predicament of being besotted by Damayanti and the swan agrees to play cupid-
The cupid swan proceeds to Kundinam, and is amused to find that Damayanti’s condition was equally pathetic. Obviously she too had heard of Nala’s fame and had fallen in love with the King. He makes sure that she notices him- lures her away from her companions- and eventually pretends to have come into her clasp- he teases her about her childishness, this scene is very charming and beautiful- the swan consoles Damayanti, narrates Nala’s goodness and eligibility and promises to help them.
Nala and Hamsam
Thus ends the first day of Nala charitham.


Nala and Damayanti are now married- The swayamvara way, there is a bit of confusion during the ceremony which is solved- but this is not delved into in the Kathakali performance. The couple then live in Nishadha happily. This segment is renowned for the depiction of “Sringara rasa”- that of love/ amour, passion.
The King and Queen are relaxing in the royal gardens, reliving memories of the swayamvara, Nala recounts how with the blessings of Lord Indra, Agni, Varuna, and Yama, and of course with the intervention of the Hamsam, they were able to get together. 

Now, Nala says, one sole rival remains to be overpowered- and that is Damayanti’s innate bashfulness- he appeals to her to shed her coyness. Nala further extols Damayanti’s beauty, compares it to various aspects of Nature, and finds nature wanting. 

Damayanti notices a bereaved Chakoram ( a bird-
Greater Coucal/ Crow Pheasant), and prays that she may never have to suffer pangs of separation from Nala.
In the next scene, Kali and Dwapara- personification of 2 yugas (eras), make their entry! They are setting off to attend Damayanti’s swayamvara, unaware that everything has come to an end. On their way, they meet the other Gods returning from the Swayamvara. They are angered to know that the Swayamvara was over, and a mere mortal succeeded in winning the hand of Damayanti. Kali decries the Gods that they let a mere mortal surpass them. Kali decides that Nala’s and Damayanti’s happiness should be thwarted. Kali and Dwapara move to Nishadha.
They reach the outskirts of the kingdom but are unable to enter the precincts, because of auspicious ceremonies being held everywhere- pujas, yagnas, chanting of mantras- etc. Kali decides to wait until something inauspicious happens- he climbs a tree ( Thaanni maram) and waits, waits, waits….twelve years pass by- Meanwhile Nala and Damayanti become parents of two children. 
Here, the actor playing ther role of Kali has ample opportunity to display his histrionic skills in Nrittha, Nrittya, he has to depict the change of seasons, the passage of time by way of mudras- hand gestures and facial expressions.
And then one fateful evening Nala forgets to wash the heel of his feet ( Achille’s heel??), before his evening prayers.- this was the opportunity that Kali was waiting for! A dramatic metaphor!
Kali enters the kingdom, seeks Pushkara, Nala’s jealous cousin who was always envious of Nala’s happiness, and instigates him to invite Nala for a game of dice. Pushkara was first surprised at having a visitor because it was only Nala who had visitors. Pushkara challenges Nala to a game of dice and expectedly Nala loses. As per the conditions, Nala and Damayanti goes on exile to the forests after sending the children to Damayanti’s parents in Kundinapuram.
Next scene- we get to see the various hardships that Nala and Damayanti have to face in the forest. Nala is pained to see Damayanti suffer and entreats her to go to her father. Damayanti refuses to leave Nala’s side.
One night, when Damayanti is fast asleep, Nala takes leave and goes on his way. He reasons that now Damayanti would be compelled to seek refuge in her father’s kingdom, and thus be spared from further suffering. He believes that Damayanti’s devotion to the Gods, and her Pativratha dharma-(moral excellence!!!???) would keep her safe. This scene is very charged and poignant. The lyrics are beautiful.
Damayanti wakes up to find Nala gone. She is heartbroken, and goes in search of Nala. Suddenly a snake bites her, and she cries in pain. A hunter hears her call of distress and rushes to her aid. He kills the snake. The hunter is bewitched by Damayanti’s beautyand asks her to become his consort. An enraged damayanti curses the hunter and turns him to ashes.
The hunter- Kaattalan- his naivette is very charming, the footwork is enchanting , from the POV of Kathakali . It is an aesthetic delight!
The songs and lyrics are beautiful.


In this segment, there are two Nalas-

1.Veluttha Nalan/ White Nala- Nala before meeting Kaarkodaka
2. Karuttha Nalan/Baahukan/ Black Nala- Nala after being cursed by Kaarkodakan.
Two actors are required to play the different Nalas.
Nala is wandering aimlessly, lost and forlorn after abandoning Damayanti /Bhaimi in the forests. He entrusts her safety to the Gods. He sits down and bemoans his plight- a soliloquoy. He compares life in the Kingdom with the life in the forest. He concludes that though there are wild animals in the forest, they are better than the vile men in the city. He laments that in spite of his having been a staunch devotee of Lord Shiva, he has not been spared by Destiny. He feels that people would lose their faith in God in such circumstances.
Suddenly, Nala hears his name being called –it was a desperate cry for help. Nala follows the cry and reaches the site of a forest fire. He sees a figure in flames. Nala makes enquiries and the figure informs him that he was Kaarkodaka- a serpent who was in this plight due to a sage’s curse. The sage however had granted that he would be released from the curse by King of Nishadha- Nala. Nala saves the serpent from the agony of the curse. Nala is able to do so because he has the boon from Agnideva that fire would not harm him. But upon redemption, the serpent promptly bites Nala, and is transformed into an ugly person.   At this point, Veluttha/ white Nala leaves and Karuttha/ Black Nala enters ).

Nala is aghast at the serpent’s apparent ingratitude, but the serpent hastens to console him saying that this transformation had been brought about in Nala’s interest. 
Karkodaka further advises Nala- now Baahuka to seek asylum in the kingdom of Ayodhya incognito. Baahuka is asked to offer his services to King Rituparna as the royal cook, charioteer and horsekeeper. Karkotaka further counsels Baahuka to gain the confidence of King Rituparna, impart the “Aswahridaya” mantra- the art of taming horses in exchange for the secrets of “Akshahrudaya mantra”-expertise in Mathematical calculations.

Before taking leave of Baahuka, Kaarkotaka gives a piece of garment and assures him that upon wearing this garment Baahuka would gain his handsome form and become Nala again. Kaarkotaka leaves.

The music is superb, the actor playing Nala enacts the vagaries of fate, in a very touching manner. The non verbal description of the forest is wonderful.
The actor playing the role of the serpent needs to have an artistic flair because the facial make up is so intricate and has to look like a serpent!
The artiste enacting the role of Baahuka, has ample opportunity to display his histrionic talents. He has to enact various scenes in the forest- the vivid imagery is brought alive before our eyes by sheer hand gestures, facial expressions, eye movements, and footwork! It is indeed an enchanting experience to behold! Baahuka enacts a scene where he watches a pregnant doe trapped in between a forest fire on one side, a raging river in spate on another and a ferocious hunter on the third. The panic stricken eyes of the doe can be enacted so effectively here, the artiste then proceeds to enact that suddenly there is a thundershower and the doe manages to escape!

Baahuka proceeds to Ayodhya, joins service of King Rituparna as advised by Kaarkotaka.
In his quarters in Ayodhya, Baahuka is unable to go to sleep as he is assailed by thoughts of Damayanti, the pangs of separation haunts Baahuka and in a soliloquoy, Baahuka relives sweet memories and sheds secret tears. Another courtier/ charioteer Jeevala who shares the quarters wakes up and on seeing Baahuka in sorrow asks him as to which woman was that causing so much of agony and Baahuka evades a reply! This too is a poignant scene in this segment. 

Meanwhile, Damayanti has reached her father’s kingdom and is now making enquiries about Nala’s whereabouts. She sends trustworthy Brahmins in and around the country in all directions. Each messenger is supposed to present a riddle ( coined by Damayanti) in the various courts and elicit an answer. It is Damayanti’s conviction that only Nala would be able to give the right answer. Naturally, the Brahmin who reaches the court of Ayodhya receives the right answer to the cryptic riddle. The Brahmin rushes back to Damayanti to inform her of his success. Damayanti is sure that Nala lives in hiding in Ayodhya. Now, she sends another Brahmin- Sudeva to return to Ayodhya with the announcement that Damayanti, the princess of Kundinapuri was getting ready for a second Swayamvara after having been cruelly abandoned by King Nala. Sudeva- a clever Brahmin assures her that he would see to it that the message is delivered in the court of King Rituparna at the earliest.
Sudeva reaches Ayodhya, announces that Queen Damayanti , unable to bear a lonely life had decided to go in for a second swayamvara which was to be held in Kundinapuri in 2 days, and if King Rituparna hoped to try his luck, he had to set forth immediately due to lack of time. Now, again, Damayanti knew that only Nala had the prowess to travel such a long distance within the prescribed time limit- he had the power to travel wind speed due to the blessings of Lord Vaayudeva! Baahuka is upset at the news as well as intrigued- Sudeva observes Baahuka’s expressions covertly and is confused- Baahuka naturally offers to ride King Rituparna to Kundinapuri and assures him that they would reach in time for the Swayamvara!

The actor donning the role of Sudeva should have a sense of humour to impart in his enactment- the sly covert expressions as he watches Baahuka- his way of describing Damayanti’s plight- all are highly enchanting.
There is also scope for description of the Kingdom of Ayodhya, the selection of suitable horses to go to Kundinapuri – the songs in this segment are beautiful and heart warming.


The final segment is perhaps the most poignant in sentimental content- touches the pinnacle of emotional depiction!
The scene opens with Damayanti sitting in the terrace of her palace with her sakhi/ companion-Keshini. She is distraught but not angry with Nala for having abandoned her in the forest. She is convinced from Sudeva’s description and from the fact that her riddle was answered correctly, that Nala was hiding in Ayodhya, but she is confused about the description of Baahuka.
Now, Damayanti was waiting for the chariot from Ayodhya to arrive.She knew that only Nala would be able to cover this long a distance in so short a time. She sees smoke and dust in the distance .As the chariot nears, she is able to identify two of the occupants- King Rituparna, and charioteer Varshneya, but not the third occupant, an ugly, dark complexioned stranger. She is disappointed because she had expected to see Nala. All this is depicted by the actor playing Damayanti by way of mudras, facial, eye expressions only- truly an amazing performance!
A saddened Damayanti tells Keshini that perhaps all her efforts in tracing Nala had been in vain. She bemoans that her Ishtadevatha – had no compassion for her. Damayanti considers various options in seeking out the facts. She deliberates on whether it would be appropriate for her to go directly to this ugly stranger and make enquiries, or perhaps send the children to him and observe his reaction. Eventually, she decides that such steps were perhaps not appropriate, did not become a Queen of her stature, so she resolves to send Keshini instead to make enquiries and also observe the stranger’s actions stealthily.
Damayanti and Keshini
Keshini proceeds to accost the stranger, asks him details like from where he came and what was his situation. She explains that her lady- Queen Damayanti had sent her to make these enquiries.
Now, Baahuka is upset that Damayanti seemed to have no compunction in entering into a 2nd Swayamvara- the clever Sudeva had gone to great lengths to describe Damayanti’s beauty, loneliness, anger, sorrow- while at Ayodhya, all as per directions of Damayanti.
Baahuka, upon reaching Kundinapuri is puzzled that the kingdom seemed to be devoid of any festivity and celebration for the Swayamvara.
Upon being interrogated by Keshini, Baahuka replies only vaguely. He is unable to conceal his annoyance and envy about he fact that Damayanti seemed to be eager to marry again. This segment is amusing while being poignant- Baahuka’s anger, Keshini’s reaction, her covert observations of the former’s expressions, trying to read between lines to see if it is indeed Nala in disguise.
Finally, Keshini asks Baahuka to repeat the answer to the riddle, Baahuka obliges, and then sarcastically points out that it being night time, it was not appropriate for a woman to be dallying with a stranger and she better be going. An embarrassed, yet relieved Keshini withdraws.
Now, it was Baahuka’s responsibility to cook for King Rituparna. He is supplied with all the ingredients but is not given access to water and fire by specific directions of Damayanti! Keshini has been instructed to watch Baahuka’ actions discreetly. Now Nala has been blessed by the Gods that he would be able to cook without fire or water. Baahuka proceeds to invoke Agni and Varuna, and begins cooking. This scene is very entertaining- how he invokes fire, gets it going, how he cooks, the various dishes, all in mime.
After serving the King, Baahuka retires to the chariot. He absent mindedly notices that the garlands adorning the chariot have all wilted, Baahuka caresses them, and Lo! They become fresh, fragrant blossoms. Keshini has been watching everything.
She rushes to Damayanti and reports everything- this scene- relating of various incidents by Keshini, Damayanti’s increasing excitement upon being convinced that it was indeed Nala- is beautiful. But Damayanti is perplexed as to how Nala’s handsome countenance got transformed into this hideous form.
Damayanti goes to her mother, relates everything to her and seeks her permission to talk to Baahuka. She then summons Baahuka .
The scene where the two meet is charged and poignant. Baahuka has worn the garment that Kaarkotaka had given him and has recovered his own handsome form! The hide and seek is over! Both of them exchange their respective grievances- Damayanti at being abandoned in the forest to the mercy of wild animals, Nala cannot curtail his anger when he thinks about the 2nd swayamvara, He seethes in anger upon remembering Sudeva’s detailed description about Damayanti’s loneliness, he seems to forget that he had abandoned her callously in the forest.
Damayanti tries to placate him, she assures him that the drama of a second Swayamvara was only a ruse to get Nala to Kundinapuri. Nala is not convinced and and it takes a voice from the skies to believe that Damayanti was indeed guileless and chaste! ( so much for womanhood-I personally do not enjoy this part much- )
Anyway, all is well that ends well, the couple is reunited and they proceed to seek blessings from Damayanti’s parents and see the children.
In this last segment, the emphasis is on sentimental drama, Music is beautiful, Baahuka’s jealousy, ire, Damayanti’s yearning to have a glimpse of Nala, their reaction on seeing each other after the estrangement, are highly endearing, touching.
The actors playing the roles of Nala and Damayanti usually get so carried away by emotions that real time tears flow- the effect is added to by rich, moving mellifluous music and meaningful lyrics!
As one friend had pointed out in the comments on sulekha, apart from the  social conditioning woven into this tale -like Damayanti's chastity, color based concepts of beautiful and ugly etc., the performance as an Art form is enchanting. 

All the images, that I've used here are taken from the web. If there are copyright issues, I shall delete them upon notification. 

(Kathakali- A Total Theatre)



Srijith Unni said...

Wow! Ardra, did not come across this before.. Mythical and surreal.. and a detailed explanation of the Kathakali art form

Anonymous said...

Awesome post! For posterity's sake, your blog is worth its weight in gold. When time and circumstance permit, please post!

Meleth Nambiar

Ardra said...

Thank you Srijith.
Thank you Mr.Nambiar...


good work

Ardra said...

Thank you sir, for your valuable comments.

strider said...


This is a nice write on Nalacharitham. It helped me understand the technicalities of Kathakali a little better, like I did not notice the elements of painting in kathakali until you mentioned it.

Then the way story is narrated is good too. I could see all the finer points of the story. Then I guess, an eye for details is one interesting feature of kathakali. This is an great story for kathakali too as it deals with love, longing, abandonment and jealousy.

Don't know if I could go through many nights of kathakali to see Nalacharitham. Even if I didn't this post will do for now. :)