Addressing an excited audience on Sept. 30, Viswanath Kaladharan said, “Kathakali means story play: ‘katha’ meaning story, ‘kali’ meaning play.”
That Tuesday night, the intimate space of Kresge Experimental Theatre was filled with students and faculty for “An Evening of Kathakali.”
Kathakali is an Indian dance style originating in Kerala, with a centric focus on telling epic tales of Hindu folklore. “An Evening of Kathakali,” in particular, told the story of King Ravana. Intriguingly, Ravana was a villain. As Kaladharan told the audience, many stories performed in Kathakali are villain-focused.
As the lights came down, Ravana entered to the awe-struck gaze of the audience. Kalamandalam Shanmukham, the actor in this one man show, had endured a four hour makeup session under makeup artist Kalamandalam Sukumaran, and it certainly showed. Every inch of him was covered in ornate fabric and bright colors.
The beginning portion of the show was spent with Ravana making the tiniest movements in perfect time with the overlaying drum track. Kaladharan mentioned prior to the show, that classical
Kathakali performances are often conducted with live music.
As Shanmukham maintained perfect eye contact, stillness, and precision, Kaladharan narrated the story.
In the drama, Ravana opens with a soliloquy in which he ponders his state of happiness, having received all the books he wished for after doing penance to Lord Brahma. He then questions why he did the penance, moving the scene into a flashback.
The scene shows Ravana reminiscing on time spent with his mother, Kaikasi. Here, the actor performed multiple impersonations. In Kathakali, this is called pakarnattam. The young Ravana is sleeping on his mother’s lap, when Kaikasi hears a sound in the sky.
The sound is of Ravana’s half brother, Vaishravana, approaching in his chariot. Kaikasi is jealous of his wealth, but also concerned for his well-being. As the brother leaves, she looks down at Ravana in agony.
Feeling her tears, Ravana wakes. Kaikasi tells him the events, and Ravana promises to do penance to Brahma in order to become omnipotent.
Years pass by as Ravana does penance, but Lord Brahma is nowhere to be seen. Just as Ravana is inclined to give up, Brahma appears and grants Ravana the boons that all three worlds will come under his reign, that he will incur constant wealth and well-being, and no one other than a human being shall cause his death.
The tale is epic and convoluted, but it is certain that the story of Ravanodbhavam (the Birth of Ravana) was done complete justice by the wonderful performance of this talented, three-man team.