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Kathakali plays with a new-age sensibility

Sadanam K. Harikumar's experimental works are known to explore the pysche of women and transgenders. The latest is Shikhandi

Learning Kathakali in the 1970s, teenaged Sadanam K. Harikumar was disturbed by certain “skewed” portrayals of epic heroes in the dance-theatre. One such was Arjuna's belittling replies to a love-struck Urvashi. “We know the Pandava prince as a proud warrior,” says Harikumar , pointing out that the pre-eminent Kalakeyavadham play taught in classrooms too portrays him so. “Yet into the second half of that story, Arjuna comes across as an insipid person!”

This lingered in Harikumar's mind for one-and-a-half decades, till he came up with Sapamochanam (1989). Its lyrics evoked a new-age sensibility and the choreography revelled in novelties. In the process, the famed episode from the Mahabharata got a suitable twist in which Urvashi outshone Arjuna.

Over the past 32 years as a Kathakali playwright, Harikumar has written many stories. Besides the occasional tweaks to and characters, a sizeable number of scripts displays a feminist spirit. They are not just a celebration of womanhood, but are sometimes a take on transgender struggles and victories. The latest being Shikhandi, the multifaceted Harikumar's 19th experimental production. The four-and-a-half-hour work premièred recently, coinciding with the 68th anniversary of Sadanam Classical Arts Akademi, which he heads in Pathiripala, Palakkad district.

Sadanam K Harikumar

Compare and contrast

Shikhandi conjures up a climax that deviates from Vyasa's masterpiece. The eponymous transgender was, in the previous life, a beautiful princess named Amba. She suffered a tragedy in her prime: a botched marriage with King Salwa. All because the valorous Bhishma entered the wedding venue, overpowered her fiancé, and took her and her two sisters away by force, to be made wives of his half-brother Vichitravirya.

Today, that ‘villain' is lying on a bed of arrows. At the Mahabharata war, Shikhandi has felled him. Here, beyond revenge, Harikumar's protagonist betrays compassion. On second thoughts, Shikhandi returns to the man and responds positively to a hand extended by Bhishma. A pensive raga in the air caps the poignancy.

“Well, but for his vow of celibacy, Bhishma would perhaps have tied the knot with Amba when she returned to him after being disowned by Salwa. Amba too would have thought she finally got the ideal man,” says Harikumar, a disciple of the unorthodox Kathakali maestro Keezhpadam Kumaran Nair (1916-2007). “Originally, this end wasn't in my mind. It happened while writing. Choreographically, too, it appeared viable.”

Sapamochanam also stands out for being high on emotion. Urvashi, indignant owing to Arjuna's disinterest in her, curses him to become a eunuch. Unlike in the epic, Urvashi herself offers shapamoksha as a way out. This, after Arjuna says he could only see a mother in Urvashi, who has been a wife of his forefathers. The maid's fury melts in a jiffy: she senses a son's warmth for the first time in her promiscuous life. And lets Arjuna lie on her lap, patting him to sleep.

As theatre researcher Renu Ramanath notes, “It is unique for a Kathakali production to end with a lullaby!”

From ‘Sapamochanam'

Encouraging responses

Harikumar's fresh approach to Kathakali has sustained him as an actor-dancer, vocalist and make-up artist. Says nonagenarian literary critic M. Leelavathy, “Kathakali has immense scope to conceive scenes with emotions beyond valour and vengeance. Harikumar manages to liberate lovers of the art form from age-old concepts about women as meek or insignificant objects.” But some scholars find his verses prosaic. “I don't mind,” smiles the 63-year-old Harikumar, who is also a painter, sculptor and Carnatic musician. “A Kathakali work in the 21st century should not sound archaic. Neither should its dance be mere repetition of age-old technique.”

From the beginning, Harikumar's works have reiterated this. They are about novel facial designs, costume, gestures, patterned movements and, above all, catering to the young generation. If his Chitrangada, staged a decade ago, dealt with blurred sexual identities, other Puranic characters such as Kali, Asti, Surpanakha and Hidumbi in subsequent plays portrayed the labyrinths of the female psyche.

The writer is a keen follower of Kerala's performing arts.

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