Kathakali Festival: Kacha Devayani
Alliance Francaise, July 1
Right from the first act of Kacha Devayani, when stagehands clad in cream and gold ceremonial clothing lift a multicoloured shroud before a lit lamp, it is clear the drama will mark a shift away from the common rules of modern-day plays that the audience is accustomed to.
Razor-sharp percussion sequences and larger-than-life costumes shine in the two-hour long play, the third production by Bhaskar's Arts Academy for Bhaskareeyam, their annual festival celebrating performing arts in Singapore and overseas.
Featuring seasoned artistes from Kalamandalam, a prestigious Indian school of performing arts, the play is a rare glimpse into a drama tradition that is not commonly practised outside India.
Derived from a 2,000-year-old tale in the Mahabharata epic, Kacha Devayani is about two lovers who are on opposing sides of a war between gods and demons. A staple of the traditional kathakali repertoire, the play features both instrumental and vocal accompaniments to supplement the performance of its four main actors.
The form of drama is almost exclusive to the Malayalee community of the south Indian state of Kerala, and is believed to have been first practised in its early forms in the first millennium.
With elaborate hand movements and poses in perfect plie, Kalamandalam Biju, who stars as the lead protagonist Kacha, takes the audience on a roller coaster of emotions, enticing them to fall in love with his character throughout the play and, ultimately, despise him for his betrayal of Devayani.
Casting actors in non-conforming gender roles is a unique aspect of kathakali that is skilfully presented during the performance by Rajasekharan, a retired principal of Kalamandalam and a seasoned veteran of the art form.
His Devayani is a spellbinding display of feminine grace and scorn depicted through his smaller, softer steps and swaying movements, compared with Biju's thunderous stamps and rigid posture.
A highlight of the show is the performance by percussionists Sadanam Ramakrishnan and Kalamandalam Achutha Warrier on the traditional drums, the chenda and maddalam, which earned them several ovations from the audience.
The production could have been elevated by stage props curated to better fit the era of the play and the placement of musicians a distance away from the actors. But this rendition of Kacha Devayani gives new life to the traditional play, allowing the audience to fully relate to the folly, fear and delusions of the characters.