Tradition and Modernization: Krishnanattam – Sathyanarayanan Elayath

What are the changes that came through innovations the area of Krishnanattam? How do you think do these changes contribute to the loss of the unique identity of art in the present circumstances, or do they add to the beauty of evolution?

Krishnanattam places paramount importance on devotion and performance. Manavedan, the creator of Krishnageethi (the text of Krishnanattam), wrote eight stories for the performance: Avataram (Incarnation), Kaliyamardanam (Kaliya Vadham), Rasakrida (Rasa Leela), Kamsavadham (Kamsa Vadham), Svayamvara (Svayamvara), Banayuddham (Banayuddham), Vividavadham (Vividavadham), and Swargarohanam (Swargarohanam). It is believed that the musical pattern is adapted from systems prevalent at the time, and the performance may have been influenced by other performance traditions, such as Ashtapadiyattam.

Nevertheless, these eight pieces continue to be followed. Krishnanattam has remained relatively unchanged compared to other art forms, as it is still an integral part of worship and temple rituals. Changes may have naturally occurred over time in response to evolving social situations and facilities.

Every aspect of this art form was believed to be dependent on prevailing customs and beliefs. Each story was performed to fulfill specific wishes, and the stories were followed as rituals to achieve desired results. For example, if the Swargarohanam performance took place, the Avatar (incarnation) performance must follow. The Krishna Kereedam (The crown of Krishna) used today is believed to be the same one given by Manavedan, made with peacock feathers that Manavedan received during a ‘Krishna darshan.’ This crown has only undergone a few maintenance changes. Another tradition still followed is the use of traditional ‘chutti’ made from rice paste, which has not been replaced with paper as in Kathakali today.

As the name “Krishnanattam” suggests, the performance of the dance-drama is crucial. It doesn’t involve only acting, but acting with equal amont of ‘attam’ (nrittam). In Krishnanattam, each line is repeated at most twice, and then one ‘aachil’ with a ‘Kalasham’ signifies the end of one charanam. While there have been some improvisations by performers today, the overall structure remains unchanged.

In the musical aspect, when Krishnanattam was introduced to Guruvayoor in the 1970s, some modifications were made to the music. Ragas were changed, and a more elaborate form of expression was introduced under the influence of Kathakali singers like Neelakandan Nambeeshan. Earlier, during the time of my Gurus, Narayana Pisharodi and Appukuttan Radi, there were only four or five ragas, but now, additional ragas have been incorporated to suit the performance. For example, ‘Kamboji’ for Viswaroopam, Anandabhairavi for the sthree vesha nritta portions, and ‘Ghantaram’ for specific portions with Veera Rasa prominence, such as the part of ‘Yavanan’ in Swayamvaram. These changes have been in place since the late 1970s.

Today in music, some structuring and codifications have been introduced, such as using a ‘chavittu harmonium’ and a Sruthi box. Previously, it was just the voice of the hengila, and they used to tune with the sruti. Influence from Kathakali sangeetham and Carnatic music is mainly visible in structuring the training system and improving the performer’s skills. Other than that, the core form of Krishnanattam has remained unchanged, as it is believed that Bhagavan would not approve of alterations.

What were the changes and improvements that occurred as your contributions in this art? Similarly, what continues to exist without change in any aspect? These are the questions that come to mind.

I have been involved in the field of Krishnanattam for nearly thirty years. It began in 1981. Even before that, I had an interest in music. I always enjoyed various forms of music, whether it was musical dramas or classical music. I also took some formal training. However, since my specialization is in Krishnanattam music, I have always tried to preserve its purity. Whenever I sing words from other familiar art forms, I make an effort to sing them in a way that does not compromise the purity of Krishnanattam. I have always tried to maintain the sanctity of this art form. Some parts can be improved to enhance the beauty. “It is important to sing in a manner that is most appropriate for the context of the story and the character. In that regard, I have always made efforts to preserve the beauty in the integration of music and ‘abhinaya’.”

Do connoisseurs seek change or do prefer the old? To what extent you have considered audience preference in your presentation?

Onlookers of Krishnanattam can be classified into two groups. One group views it solely as a part of worship, with little concern for its artistic aspects. The other category appreciates Krishnanattam as an art form, both here in Guruvayur and at some regular venues like Ambalapuzha and Delhi, people often seeks modifications. Some individuals request changes such as altering certain ragas, extending particular padams, but we are permitted to make these adjustments without altering the core conventions.

As Krishnanattam artists, we do have certain limitations. Each artist is restricted from making significant changes and can only introduce minor improvisations. Any change must be accepted by the entire ‘Kalari.’ It’s important to note that there is only one ‘Kalari’ existing for Krishnanattam even in the past and today. Ultimately, we believe that ‘Bhagavan Guruvayurappan’ is the primary Rasika (appreciator) of Krishnattam. Whatever he desires, he guides us to perform. At times, audience preferences may be humbly overlooked.

Have you ever felt that the adherence to the ‘Bhakti’ aspect and the associated ritual practices restrict the further development of ‘Krishnanattam’?

Bringing about significant changes in traditions beyond a certain limit is not feasible. This is due to the strong inclination towards devotion and tradition, as mentioned earlier. This deep-seated belief, combined with the divine nature of the art form, poses challenges for artists seeking to introduce their own modifications. While other art forms undergo transformations, Krishnanattam offers limited scope for such changes.

It’s evident that in other forms like Kathakali, some performers gain recognition and acclaim beyond the art form itself due to their exceptional skills. There are enthusiasts who specifically come to witness the ‘vesham’ of artists like Ramankutty Ashan or Gopi Ashaan. However, in Krishnanattam, the art is inseparable from the group. We have only one ‘Kalari’ and one distinct ‘Style,’ with our performances almost predefined in the temple routine. One aspect to note is that performers must not become complacent due to this permanency. However, this doesn’t happen because we all dedicate our actions to ‘Bhagavan,’ which is what I firmly believe. Krishnanattam will endure as long as Guruvayurappan exists. He is our ultimate curator and savior.

Today, performers have greater accessibility and exposure to various art forms, which increases the possibility of being influenced by them. Isn’t that true? How do the ‘Kalari’ ensure that such mixings are kept in check?

There are plenty of opportunities to appreciate other art forms, which is a beneficial practice. However, I believe there won’t be any mixing because the ‘Kalari’ is very strong and strict. Typically, Krishnanattam artists do not seek training in other forms, so they adhere to the established pattern. In the past, outsiders used to come along with our ‘Ashans’ to provide corrections in music lessons. But nowadays, it’s unnecessary as all the artists are capable of handling all aspects of teaching. Therefore, the ‘Kalari’ ensures that there is no mixing or dilution of the traditional Krishnanattam form.

Are there any ongoing academic and research studies related to Krishnanattam music? Are there any such efforts taking place within the ‘Kalari’?

To the best of my knowledge, there isn’t a significant amount of research happening in this area. Only a few individuals who are interested in these aspects have approached me and other staff members of the ‘Kalari’ for this purpose. Some music teachers and students also make attempts to explore the aspects of Krishnanattam music. Apart from these external individuals, there are no research-oriented studies taking place within the ‘Kalari.’ Here, our primary focus is on dedicated training and performance.

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