The charm of mono acts

It was as if a dream had come true. And thus, I stood there in absolute awe of the artist’s performance. The power cut did create a certain degree of anxiety but had also recreated the long lost charm of the ancient art. It was this golden opportunity that I had sought to witness all my life. The fresh natural makeup highlighted by the glow of a Nalavilikku, at a hall situated within the premises of the Sree Poornathrayeesha temple, and the graceful movements of the artists had indeed left a lasting impression on all those present. For the elder members of the audience, the experience would have brought back nostalgic memories of performances often witnessed from dusk to dawn. To me, the experience made me feel more royal the heirs of the Kochi Maharaja.

As the sounds of the percussions grew louder and more intense, I was drawn closer to the play. Perhaps, it was the childhood affinity to the rhythmic variations of the bhava that began to take over my senses. Within a span of few minutes, I was transported into an era that one knew precious little about. The era of the Ramayana.

Before me stood the evil yet powerful Lankan King, Ravana proudly narrating the tale of his life; the tale of his transformation from an innocent lad to the ruler that he was. His energy and valour grew more intense. The loud yells of power were symbolic of his pride and desire to acquire more. All of a sudden, a grave silence had filled the room. And I was brought back to the world of the Kaliyuga.

Before I begin my analysis of this mesmerizing play, allow me to introduce myself. I hail from a family of Kathakali dancers. I am also a trained Bharatanatyam Dancer and Carnatic vocalist. It is this love for India’s ancient art forms that inspired me to dig deeper into the true traditions of this ancient classical dance drama. A journalist by profession, I believe nothing can be more colourful and exciting to write or describe than some of India’s finest art forms. Especially those art forms that are traced back to God’s own country-Kerala.

The recital at this ancient temple in Kochi’s cultural hub, Tripunithra, was unique in many aspects. To begin with, the story of Ravan, performed by the revered artist Ettamanoor Kannan, depicted the value of “mono acts” in classical dance drama. While the tale of Ravan did involve the representation of Ravan’s kith and Kin, the self-narrated tale of Ravan’s existence by the character himself is truly a challenge for any artist. After all, it is not easy to effectively communicate a tale of such varied interpretations with hand gestures and abhinaya. It is interesting to note that the artist had single- handedly brought together a large audience by the mere power of his performance.

Thus, it would be correct to say that although Kathakali is most often associated with a team of musicians and dancers, it’s presentation is unlike any other. Perhaps that is how the art of the vagabonds had attained the status of a sacred and classical form of art. What was once the primary source of entertainment to the Nambootharis, is now a global attraction.

Also, unlike most dancers, Kathakali artists believe in restricted jaw-movements. For instance, while the “evil” characters are permitted to let out loud cries, the “good” characters are not permitted to expose their teeth while smiling. It is due to these restrictions in facial expressions, that the artists often resort to heavy make-up, thereby ensuring that the expressions are visible even under the dim light of a traditional Indian lamp (Nilavilakku).

In a nutshell, I wished I could re-live the moment and travel back in time to experience the art form in its best traditions. I only wish that the commercialization of an art as beautiful and charming as this, would not be forgotten and that the future generation is granted an opportunity to witness this unique Indian musical play.