The house was full to capacity with an eager audience filling Stephanie’s livingroom and two balconies that overlook the scene. Vishwanath Kaladharan spoke briefly about the history of kathakali and, with the help of guest artist Roshni Pillai of San Jose, provided an introduction to the facial and hand language of this South Indian dance-drama. This year we were treated to a charming tale about a Woodsman who encounters a mysterious woman deep in the forest.
As you may remember from my past blogs about kathakali, the dramas are filled with a limited assortment of stock characters drawn mainly from sacred texts. Last year we saw a one-hour solo performance of a demonic female character, Putana, who attains enlightenment at the close of the story. This year, we were introduced to a more mundane folk-like character, The Woodsman from a 19th century play about King Nala and his wife, Princess Damayanthi, our mystery woman. In one episode, the princess is abandon in the forest. Her cries for help awaken the Woodsman who grabs his weapons and goes in search of the source.
Just as in our own stories about crazy forest dwellers, so this character behaves in curious ways, often times to hilarious effect. At first, we weren’t sure if his bizarre make-up, voluminous costume, and generally silly antics were intended to be funny. But actor Kalamandalam Shanmukhadas’s non-literal vocalizations were unmistakably hilarious. Customarily, kathakali actors do not speak or utter sounds on stage, except in the case of demons and slightly crazed forest dwellers. Shanmukhadas used this opportunity to full advantage shrieking and gibbering in a sonic conversation with himself. Though, there were times when I was sure he was looking and speaking directly at me. It was utterly delightful.
When the Woodsman finds Princess Damayanthi (played by San Jose guest artist Roshni Pillai), she is weeping and wailing because a snake has clamped on to her foot. This is a very small role, usually portrayed by a srti vesham (a male actor performing a female role) but here performed by an emerging female artist. Though perhaps still uncommon, women have been studying and performing kathakali for decades. Pillai’s facial acting showed her character filled with grief over the loss of her husband and, in the end, disdain for our persistent Woodsman.
The makeup and costume
For the first time, Kaladharan was able to employ a makeup artist for the tour. Kalamandalam Sukumaran is a student of this elaborate and exacting art. I had the chance to sit and watch part of the lengthy process. Using a very modest kit of make-up, Shanmukhadas applies the first layer of colors, black, green, and red. Sukumaran meanwhile creates the nose pieces by cutting and curling rice paper. The nose and cheek pieces are created fresh for each performance and are attached to the face with a thick paste of rice.
Not very long ago, kathakali performances in the US were quite rare. No more: Kaladharin and his repertory group have performed in dozens of venues across this country. On this trip alone, they performed from Hartford, CT, to Columbus, OH, to Santa Cruz, CA. And they are not done: next they dash off to the University of Hawaii before returning for a final US performance in San Jose. I look forward to seeing them again next year—and perhaps in a bigger and more public venue so you can all see them, too!
I’d like to thank everyone who made this performance possible, but especially Marlene Pitkow and Stephanie Golino who took the time and made the effort to bring us this exceptional house concert.