Tradition and Modernization Kathakali – Kalamandalam Vasu Pisharadi

Acclaimed Kathakali Performer from the senior generation and Guru. Well accepted by the connoisures and ‘Rasikas’ for his expensive Abhinaya and perfection in ‘Nritta’.

What changes have occurred in Kathakali through innovations over the past few years, and how have these changes influenced the continued growth of this art form? Do these changes impact the art form or contribute to its aesthetic development?

Innovations and new narratives had happened in Kathakali since ages. Other than the traditional Kottayam Kathakal’, Ramayanam Kathakal ans ‘Thampi Kathakal, Nalacharitam and Karnashapadham were such additions whiche were accepted in all kalaris’ and performance venuew. After these, there no such pieces to mention, which became a part of Kathakali Tradition. Then, certain changes in performance are brough by individual perfomers as per their aesthetic perspectives. In some performances, these changes are more evident. For instance, the character of Kunchu Nayar in the Santhana Gopalam had some distinctive features, much like Krishna Nayar. Kumaran Nayarasan also introduced some unique elements into certain Ashtakalams. Nevertheless, all of these changes, in one way or another, are either confined to those individuals or their lineage. Not everything that comes to the stage has seen significant alterations. Some individuals leave their imprints through their artistic influences, and these changes tend to follow their preferences and aesthetic sensibilities, aligning with their body types. It doesn’t mean that everyone should strive to replicate these changes blindly; it’s not always for the better.

Besides, there have been shifts in storytelling and presentation techniques, often adding more depth and meaning to the presentation. For instance- uryodanavadham- the portion starting ‘Duryodanaadikal..’, one ‘kalasham has been added. As part of reducing the duration, there has been several editing happened in many plays.

One key observation here is the increased importance given to theatricality in Kathakali performances, sometimes at the expense of dance. Drama gets more emphasis, and dance takes a backseat. Earlier the prominence was given to the overall enrichment f the story with each sequences had their priority. Each portion highlighted each charecters. With the entry of Nalacharitam, there was a trend to portray one main hero, and a priority to ‘Sthayee Bhava’. This is a notable change that happened with the entry of new stories. While these changes are essential, it’s vital to preserve the essence of Kathakali and maintain a balance between the various elements of this rich and intricate art form.

What were the changes and modifications that have occurred as your contribution in this field? Similarly, what do you think will continue to evolve without change in this art form?

As previously mentioned, certain changes and additions have been made, which I have personally undertaken. Some verses (ahlokas) have been incorporated after carefully considering their relevance to the context. Certain sections have been omitted as part of the editing process for specific ‘Kathakal’ where I deemed them unnecessary.

In the ‘Thekkan chitta’ performance of ‘Banayudham,’ there was a depiction of a Shiva-Parvathi dance, combining elements of Thandava and Lasya, which was not originally part of ‘Thekkan chitta.’ Additionally, in the description of Krishna Leela, the portrayal of Mahameru (Mahameru Varnana) deserves mention. The choreography for Krishnaleela was unique and continues to be acclaimed by connoisseurs.

I have devoted effort to develop a comprehensive pedagogy (Kalaripadam) for Nalacharitham Full stories.

Moving forward, I believe it is crucial to emphasize certain aspects. Firstly, maintaining discipline on the performance platform and in the ‘Aniyara’ is paramount. The younger generation should look to senior artists like ‘Gopi ettan’ (Kalamandalam Gopi) for inspiration and guidance. A refined sense of aesthetics is not only essential for performers but also for Chutti artists and everyone involved in the process. I’ve observed that some young children are reluctant to handle the ‘Thirasseela,’ and it’s important for them to start with the fundamentals. These experiences will mold them into disciplined artists.

Another point worth highlighting is the need to give due importance to each component during a performance. Kathakali isn’t just about theatricality; every aspect, including dance elements and the synergistic effect of dance, music, and abhinaya, holds great significance. Extra attention should be devoted to these areas.

Are those who accept change or seek something new more receptive to Rasikas, or is it the traditionalists who Rasikas require today?  

Connoisseurs are not averse to change, and there have always been critics of refinement. However, there are always those who insist that refinement and changes are necessary. Nevertheless, we cannot always adhere to the audience’s wishes. Edited versions of plays, for instance, were introduced in response to audience demand. Tastes among connoisseurs vary based on their exposure and preferences. Different regions also exhibit variations in audience taste; for example, the preferences of the South Kerala audience slightly differ from those in the North, especially regarding the request for additional ‘padams,’ and we occasionally accommodate these preferences.

Furthermore, it’s crucial to emphasize the significance of perception and taste. When transitioning from one artistic style to another, satisfaction naturally stems from what has been observed and appreciated over the years. The more one watches and observes art, the greater their capacity to appreciate it becomes. This knowledge cannot be acquired solely from books. Some individuals merely offer praise or criticism based solely on their book knowledge. However, I want to underscore the point that spectators should actively watch the performance to develop a well-informed perspective.

When new narratives enter to Kathakali, what exactly deserves special attention?

My guru, Vazhenkada Kunju Nair, was a visionary and a choreographer of new stories, such as Budhacharitham and Vamaangam. I have observed that he didn’t simply take a story and adapt it; instead, he thoroughly read the entire ‘aattakatha’ and explored the possibilities in all aspects of Kathakali. Such an approach is crucial when approaching new stories. The length of the plays or the number of characters may not be as significant as the scope for abhinaya (expressive elements), nritta (dance), and compelling story situations, characters, and special scenarios.

I’ve also been involved in adapting Western plays like King Lear. However, in such adaptations, we often encounter a conflict between the physical appearances of the characters and our standards of beauty. They may not align with our concepts, which can make these presentations suitable for only one or two stages but not a lasting part of our tradition. Therefore, it’s best to select plays that harmonize well with our culture. These considerations should receive attention when attempting new choreographies.

What do you believe is most important for a generation capable of preserving tradition while embracing innovations? How significant is a Kalari in this context?

Training should be meticulous and disciplined. It’s crucial not to forget the lessons learned in the Kalari. Even after the formal training period, one should continue to expand their knowledge through reading, watching more performances, and making keen observations. One must go beyond what they’ve initially learned, making self-learning essential. Performers should not become complacent, especially as they receive more opportunities. Accumulating experience is of utmost importance. Over time, through continuous observation, learning, and practice, individuals will attain a higher level of confidence and maturity.

Additionally, it’s important to avoid merely replicating the work of others. Instead, individuals should develop a deep understanding of their own body and facial expressions, allowing them to move forward with authenticity and uniqueness.

The unification of styles, merging certain traditions from the ‘thekkan and Vadakkan styles, has been occurring in recent times. Do these changes benefit the plays? What are your opinions on this matter?

There’s no necessity to make styles identical. However, there’s nothing wrong with embracing certain positive elements from external sources and integrating them into our own style. In my own work on the ‘Thekkan chitta,’ I found some aspects from the ‘Vadakkan chitta’ to be beneficial and incorporated them. It’s not about complete separation; elements that are deemed valuable from various sources can coexist. Nevertheless, it is essential to preserve the distinctive characteristics of each style.

Regarding the unification of styles, the extent to which one should accept and implement it depends on individual preferences. For those with refined tastes, complete unification may not be entirely feasible. Therefore, one can blend or unify styles to an extent that does not compromise the uniqueness of each style. It is crucial not to dilute the individuality of a style while incorporating changes from external influences.

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