Kathakali

Celestial Dances I – For Arun, the weekend started with Kathakali, followed by nature’s dance in tornado alley, and dancing on the streets in Little India celebrating India’s cricket win. All in one weekend.

Kathakali. Arun’s first memory of this story-play from Kerala was when he was five years old. It was raining heavily that night, and the day, night and day before. It was also the night Arun’s grandfather killed a snake. It dared enter the kitchen through the back door. The snake lost traction to the smooth mosaic floor and was trapped.

The venue for kathakali was a short walk from Arun’s grandparents’ house in Trichur. Soon after the grandfather clock struck nine muthassan, or grandfather, held Arun’s hand and stepped into the thunder and rain under a giant umbrella. Grandma, or am mamma, followed with a torch under her folding umbrella. They walked past the iron gates, which used to house a beehive that stung Arun’s brother, on to the metal road. At the wooden lamppost with a faint bulb, they turned left. This was the only streetlight on the way to the temple; one had to stand directly beneath to see any light. Ammamma waved her torch in front. Lightning illuminated the rest. Arun looked for snakes crawling out from every bush and stonewall. They reached the temple after what seemed to him an eternity.

In front of Sankarankulangara temple there was always a pool, or kulam, surrounded by a high brick wall. Next to the kulam, on higher ground, was an open hall. Grandpa told Arun that events such as kathakali took place here ever since the temple was built.

So what was kathakali? ‘You will see soon,’ ammamma replied. Arun settled down with muthassan in the front, on the hard black mosaic floor. Men and women sat separately. Traditional oil lamps were already lit. Behind the stage, there was a big white curtain tightly drawn between two pillars. Arun could hear voices behind the cloth.

The cool wind soothed Arun’s fears. Ammamma tousled Arun’s hair waking him up. “Kathakali will start now.” He was lying in ammamma’s lap cuddled in a red blanket.

Arun got up and went over to sit near muthassan. There was a giant oil lamp in the middle of the stage. Three men stood before the curtain and were singing and striking cymbals, another was striking on a chenda, or drum.

“Aaaaaaah!” If the scream was not chilling enough the artist who entered sent shivers through the blanket. His costume glistened; the black and red colors on his face heightened his rage.

Arun does not remember much about the rest of Kathakali, except the blood curling Dushasana. Ammama had told him stories from Mahabharatha so many times that sometimes Arun had to jostle her memory! “No ammamma. It was Arjuna who sits at the feet of Krishna when he wakes up.”

More than 40 years later Chitra held Arun’s wrist tightly as Bheemasena tore open Dushasana’s belly and pulled out the entrails.

The invitation for kathakali almost landed in Chitra’s junk box. Arun got more excited as they approached the venue, a north Indian temple in Etobicoke, Ontario. The hall filled up before eight and Chitra counted an interesting amount of Canadians sprinkled among mostly south Indians.

Precisely at eight, as promised, the announcer introduced the art form, the Indian vice consul [in place for the late-coming consul general], and the artists.

Watching the artists, in a traditionally male-dominated art form from Kerala, is divine. Arun and Chitra watched the story unfold in gestures. The play was about the death of Dushasana. In the Indian epic Mahabharatha, Pandavas, the five rightful heirs to the kingdom of Hastinapura, were tricked into a game of dice. The eldest of them lost everything to their rivals, Kauravas, including his brothers and Panchali, their common wife. One of the Kaurava brothers, Dushasana, then proceeds to disrobe Panchali. At that time Lord Krishna helps Panchali with an infinite supply of cloth to save face among other things. Panchali unties her long hair and swears that she will tie her hair only after Bheemasena smears it with the blood of Dushasana. She gives the contract to one of her husbands. [A moment of madness by Shankaran Namboothiri]

When one yearns for anything from back home and gets to see an inspiring performance befitting the art and the school, there is a completeness of being. At the end of the performance, the crowd rose to their feet as one and applauded till it produced tears in the eyes of the artists. Duryodhana and Dushasana crying?

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