With guttural grunts as from an alpha male on a testosterone high, King Lear in the opening scene strutted and swaggered as the drums and cymbals emphasised his every gesture and expression, in an act of supreme braggadocio. His fool’s theatrical gestures of servility only enhanced King Lear’s demonstration of his character and of his mindset, which wonderfully set the stage for his actions and eventual downfall.
This was long ago in another time, in 2018 when the performance finally came home to India. It was being staged in Trivandrum, Kerala, finally. Interesting and controversial, this opera had done its rounds in Europe, including the Globe Theatre in the 1970s, and had now come home to the land that had given birth to the dance form.
I was watching an unusual intercultural presentation of Shakespeare’s King Lear, choreographed by French dancer Annette Leday and adapted for the occasion by Australian playwright David McRuvie. It was being presented through the medium of Kathakali, the classical dance of Kerala. The production seemed to have run the gauntlet of risks such intercultural attempts are prone to. Besides much appreciation, the word ‘baffling’ had been used to describe it in the UK, and it was reported that informed Kathakali enthusiasts were left unmoved, for it seemed to be neither here nor there. But for me it was a worthwhile experience, and I feel that if a viewer were to approach this opera without preconceived expectations, his would enjoy it better.
Annette Leday, a Kathakali dancer herself, has choreographed this opera with aplomb. David McRuvie has made the play suitable for Kathakali by drastically thinning the text and retaining only the story of King Lear and his daughters. Much would have been lost here, but its suitability for this performance cannot be denied. The role of King Lear is performed well by the Kathakali exponent Peesappilly Rajiv and the endearing fool brilliantly portrayed by Manoj Kumar.
A young tradition in comparison to other Kerala dance forms, Kathakali has retained a greater degree of innovation and improvisation, and this malleability has been tapped well by Annette. Kathakali performances traditionally draw their subject from Hindu mythology, and portray archetypal characters and situations. And King Lear’s story of kingship, inheritance, family disputes and dowry are all themes that an Indian audience would understand.
The elaborate costumes and face makeup are typical to characters portrayed. And thus Goneril and Regan are presented with the black faces of demons, the radiant goodness of Cordelia is conveyed through minukku (shining) face makeup, and King Lear wears the garb of the anti hero. But it is when the opera starts that one realises Kathakali’s gift for sheer theatre. As the rippling drums and cymbals enliven the dance, the chanting tells the story, emotions flow from structured facial expressions and demonstrative gestures, and meaning flows from hand gestures called mudras. It is a very structured art form, but with a wonderful ability to convey — through lively choreography and vibrant rhythmic percussion music — archetypal human situations and emotions.
Whatever the purists may say, this performance was hugely enjoyable and made unique with the intermingling of different cultural lores.
P.G.Thomas, hailing from Kerala, India; has been intrigued by the changing phases of his land, its people and their way of life. He draws on a lifetime of actual experience to write about it.
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