Born-again bliss @ Chan

Indian Summer fêtes Sanskrit confab with 1000-year-old dance drama 

Vishnu vs. Vishnu: Avatar #4 vs. #7. Beware what you wish for. Photo: Nepathya

Just back from France, where I was able to catch up on my churchgoing. The genius of a gothic cathedral, as I rediscovered, is the way it encyclopaedically encompasses the entirety of the Christian logos.

Even if you zoom in on just one vignette  – an Annunciation, say, or Day N of Creation – you can rest assured that it’s of a piece with everything else in the cannon. It’s all rendered somewhere in this edifice, interlinked by a delicate tracery of carved vegetation. 

Step back a pace to take in the grand portal as a whole and you can feel the gravitational tug of the mythology pulling you – at least for awhile – into its sacred dream-space.

A similar sense vortex and monumental coherence marked this week’s Kuttiyattam performance by the visiting Nepathya troupe at the Chan Centre, a highlight of both the ongoing Indian Summer Festival (ISF) and this year’s UBC-hosted World Sanskrit Conference. Fittingly, the classic Sanskrit dance drama from India’s south western coastal Kerala state dates back nearly a millennium, just about coeval with the High Gothic.

Except, unlike a cathedral, a Kuttiyattam is carved in time, rather than stone. Traditionally, it could take a month or more to render a Hindu epic like the Ramayana or Mahabharata. The grand epic would be divided into all-night episodes and the hours-long performances further carved up by the unremitting pulse of drums, linking it altogether as tightly as gothic tracery.

Along with the hourglass-shaped, tonal kurumkuzhal drum, there’s a pair of giant, copper mizhavu, each the size of an adolescent grizzly, but with a drum head no bigger a salad plate. Drumming is reserved to members of Kerala’s landlord caste. Their variegated rhythms – by turns frenzied, fluttery or lulling – reflect the moods and metabolisms of the dramatis personae. It’s as though we were privy to audio-visual readouts of real-time MRI scans of the characters onstage.

These onstage presences – gods, heroes and demiurges – aren’t so much enacted as embodied by members of two Keralite priestly castes (one each for male and female roles). They are costumed in pleated flare skirts, tottering headgear and beaded festoons.

Elaborate makeup lends them the high-gloss air of static, sculpted lacquer. All the more striking, then, the micro gestures – facial tics and twitches, minutely choreographed eye-rolls, stylized hand gestures and stiffly rocking pliées – that comprise most of the action. There’s an eerie sense of temple idols come to life.

And no wonder: Kuttiyattam is not meant to be played on the theatrical stage, but rather in the sanctum of a Keralite temple. The intended “audience” should be gods and their acolytes; the rest of us are just bystanders, and usually just a select few at that. After all, it’s an “elite” art form for the educated upper castes, according to University of Tubingen Indologist Dr. Heike Oberlin, who offered an introductory talk.

Although not quite so limited in number, the scholarly Chan Centre audience could be fairly characterized as “elite,” if only by virtue of fluency in Sanskrit, the now-extinct classical language of India. Rare enough, even for academic specialists, to hear the language declaimed aloud. Kuttiyatam rhetorical conventions gave it an odd, wheezy, strangled cadence, at least to my untutored ear.

Also in the audience were several diplomatic and ministerial functionaries of India’s current right wing Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) regime, which nominally promotes revival of Sanskrit as a living language and offers at least lip service to the literal, historic veracity of the events depicted in the epics.

It would seem, though, that the events depicted in the particular three-hour Ramayana episode mounted on the Chan Centre stage hardly conduce a pietistic BJP agenda. They detail the demise of a monkey monarch, Bali, who has banished his twin brother, Sugriva, from the kingdom.

To regain his rightful throne, the exiled sibling appeals to Rama, the seventh avatar of Vishnu, the “preserver” god of the Hindu pantheon. This alliance emboldens Surgiva to lure his twin out of the monkey capital for a duel, despite the misgivings of Thara, Bali’s heaven-born queen.

To allay Thara’s fears, Bali relates his own past feats of strength and courage. Didn't he single-handedly hold off the whole legion of demons in a primordial, cosmic tug-of-war? He’s not afraid, he boasts, of even such terrifying apparitions as Vishnu’s fourth avatar, the Lion-Man Narasimha.

These digressions are all fully enacted by Bali onstage, exemplifying the leisurely pace of Kuttiyattam and the holistic interconnection of the whole corpus of mythology, just as in a gothic cathedral. Ironic that the monkey king should invoke Vishnu's fourth avatar to face down the seventh incarnation of the same preserver god. Also that he should cite the tug-of-war "cosmic churning" episode in which he helped birth his own demiurge bride. 

Bali's braggadocio is borne out on the battlefield. But when all seems lost, Surgiva’s crafty deputy, Hanuman, prevails on Rama to intervene. From a hidden ambush, the god shoots an arrow into Bali’s back. The boastful monkey king dies in his grieving sibling’s arms. With his last, gurgling breaths, he upbraids Rama as a sneaky cheat, but then asks the god’s forgiveness for his sins.

“Sure,” Rama shrugs (at least according to the surtitled translation), as his equally divine kid brother, Laxman, smugly nods at his side.

The coolly dispassionate deities, with their celadon-green glaze of face paint, contrast pointedly with the anguished monkeys. All the more so in light of Bali’s prolonged, horribly naturalistic death rattle, in stark contrast to the stilted formalism of the rest of the action. Our sympathies naturally go out to the monkeys – mortals after all, who transcend their quarrels when the chips are down.

"Makes you think, doesn't it?" murmurs ISF artistic director Sirish Rao.










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