As in Japanese kabuki, kathakali is performed exclusively by men with some men specializing the performance of female roles. These actors are known as a srti vesham. Kathakali uses an established number of stock character types—nobles, gods, demons, forest dwellers—drawn from the Sanskrit plays. This evening’s play, The Salvation of Putana or Putana Moksam is a one-hour, solo performance by a stri vesham actor who enacts in succession the three principle female character types: minukku, lalita, and kari.
Here’s a summary of the story: Putana, a demoness, has been ordered by a corrupt king to find and kill the baby Krishna (an incarnation of the supreme god, Vishnu). She appears first as a “minukku,” the noble heroine and a model of goodness, chastity, and restraint. But this is merely a disguise and Putana as “lalita” struggles between her outward appearance as a noblewoman and her nature as a demoness. The lalita thus embodies the confusion between appearances and reality, a frequent concern of Sanskrit drama. Putana tries to kill the baby Krishna by spreading poison on her breasts and nursing the child. Krishna, however, is unaffected by the poison and instead sucks the life force out of Putana. As she dies, her true identity as “kari” is revealed. “Kari,” a demoness, is analogous to Kali, the goddess of destruction. She resists social controls and represents the antithesis of the noble heroine—aggressive, dangerous and destructive. But because Putana has had contact with the divine Vishnu, she receives moksam, salvation and liberation from the karmic cycle.
Vishwanath Kaladharan, our narrator, introduced us to the art of kathakali and outlined the story for us. Our stri vesham was Kalamandalam Shanmughan who enacted this entire story through dance, mudras (a complex language of hand gestures), and both subtle and grotesque facial acting. When Putana is revealed as a demoness, Shanmughan shrieks and staggers about the stage. The demon’s scream is the only time a kathakali actor utters a noise and its effect is startling and chilling. And in this small performance space (a living room) it was especially powerful.
For me, the experience was restorative. Feeling overwhelmed by the state of the world, I dragged myself over to the event hoping to just get through it politely. But in the presence of these gracious artists, I felt a bit of Putana’s salvation myself. Dr. Pitkow writes that Putana Moksam can “be seen as a pilgrimage of the actor-as-worshipper, in which the worshipper embarks on a path toward union with the divine.” So perhaps we all became worshippers that night, encountering in the performance something divine, a darsan, and having come in contact with the divine received our own moksam.
I wish to thank Marlene Pitkow for arranging and hosting this event. Marlene conducted dissertation research on kathakali in the 1980s and studied Putana Moksam performances in some depth.
Special thanks to Stephanie Golino for so generously opening her home to us.
And of course, to Shanmughan and Kaladharan my gratitude.
Pitkow, Marlene B.
“Putana’s Salvation in Kathakali: Embodying the Sacred Journey” Asian Theatre Journal, Vol. 18, No. 2 (Autumn, 2001), pp. 238-248