KRISHNANATTAM, a visual treat

published on December 24, 2005


a visual treat

Padma Jayaraj

Krishnanattam, a dance oriented theatrical performance is the product of the Bhakthi movement. Prince Manavedan of Kozhikode, Kerala, India, who scripted and produced this visual treat bequeathed a unique performing art to the cultural stream of Kerala that culminated in the world renowned Kathakali. Born to pay homage to Krishna, Krishnanattam has refused to adopt innovative themes- both its strength and limitation. And it demands a special ambience, as it is the synthesis of dance, spectacular costume, music and rhythm re-enacting a cosmic play in macroscopic dimensions. The texture of the performance and its resonance draw the audience into a specific communion rooted in Bhakthi, the intense self-negating love, the soul and spirit of Krishna cult.


    In the evolution of the Indian dance drama, Krishnattam is a milestone. It incorporated drama from the rarefied performance tradition of Koodiyattam, ancient Sanskrit theatre; dance from the ritual performances like Theyyam, and folk dances like Kaikottikali. Its artistic beauty lies in its costume, make-up and dance steps. It remains a one-troupe theatre because of the Sanskrit text. The original Krishna Geethi is sung in the background in Sopanam style to the rhythmic beat of the madhalam and chengala recalling the entire gamut of Bhagavatha stories. And the performers dance to the rhythm of the music that rarely coincides with the narrative. The dancers have their own text made up of gestures, movements and tableaux evolved by countless gurus over decades. The hand-held curtain punctuates the rapid scene-changes making the story leap forward. Krishna is ever present, pervading the atmosphere and on the stage in his solitary splendour. And the spectators experience a multitude of ecstasies intensely personal, yet part of the collective consciousness.


        Guruvayoorappan, the main deity of the Krishna temple, Guruvayyor, is the sole patron of krishnattam. Every year there is a continuous performance of krishnattam starting from September 1st for eight days. People watch Krishnanattam in its traditional format from Avatharam, the divine descent to Swargarohanam, renunciation. On the ninth day Avatharam is re-enacted to stress the cycle of life and death.  Eight becomes the mystic number: the story of the eighth incarnation of Dasawathara, born as the eighth son of Devaky, told in eight chapters in eight continuous nights with eight measures of oil that burns eight wickers lighting the lamp.

        “Avatharam” opens the performance. The scene is heaven. Bhumi devi narrates her woes under the stranglehold of the forces of evil to Brahma, the four-faced who promises her quick relief. In the next scene on Earth we find a royal wedding. Kamsa hands over his beloved sister in marriage. Suddenly, prophetic words ring in .Her eighth son will kill its uncle.  Kamsa the all-caring brother transforms himself into a demon. For, his life is threatened now. He dominates  the stage, an  overwhelming power of evil until the bridegroom, Vasudeva promises to deliver all their unborn children into his hands. In the next scene Lord Vishnu descends in his Viswaroopa and the parents prostrate in worshipful reverence.

       Does the drama depict our own times: of the greed for power, and the burden of the unborn? Away from the enchanting myth, the scene reveals psychological realism, a moment of truth when each couple realises that their child is a gift from God, godliness incarnate!

Then follows the charming pranks of the boy Krishna told and retold by countless artists over centuries, of which the Indian mind is never tired…an aura of eternity plays around when the stick in Yasoda’s hand asks,

“Telling lies…?.”

“ No, no…no…!” is the guilt-ridden frantic answer. How human, yet how divine!! Oh, you fall in love, deeply with this adorable, boy-god that carries joy in his heart. And India has named her boys after him down the ages.

Kaliyamardhananam  is the second episode. Krishna grows up in stature, for his special mission is the destruction of evil. The stories are narrated in verse while the scenes like Poothna Moksham , Bakasura Vadham, Kaliya Mardhanam are displayed in spectacular masked dances. And they are interwoven into the idyllic life of Krishna in the pastoral settings of Gokulam. The powerful thandava dances of the fighting scenes alternating with the lasya style of the celebrations of his triumphs build up the tempo as Krishna grows up in heroic proportions. Yet,  Vasthrapaharanam in which Krishna enjoys the visual treat of the naked beauties keeps him down to earth.

      Rasacreeda on the third night depicts one night of erotic bliss on the banks of Yamuna: one night of music flowing from his flute that drives lovelorn hearts crazy, one night of dreams for the dreamers of all time to dream of, one night of love for all the lovers to treasure in their hearts!! Adolescence blossoms here. Generations have grown up with the youthful Krishna setting their hearts aflame; the mystique of love setting their souls on a trail of aching, yearning, longing. This quintessence of romance is presented in a harmonious ensemble steeped in feminine grace. All the males that play the Gopies exude femininity.

  Mulla ppoo chuttal,  the celebrated garland-dance, is rich in old-world charm. The fluid movements of the dancers weave circles, and triangles, in twos and threes; in liquid meanderings they dance in circles and ellipses around the lighted lamp. Its patterns unfold like petals of blossoming flowers of an endless garland. Krishna dances through, in, and out of these changing patterns in charming glitter. Clanging cymbals, jingling ankle-bells, soft thuds of dancing feet controlled by the loud gong create a symphony. As music surge, the ebb and flow of a hectic round of love draws the spectators into an emotional participation. The throbbing madholam resonate their heartbeats as the Gopikas scintillate with Krishna in an astral plane, the glory of Krishna cult.


        Kamsa vadham, the performance of the fourth night, is the turning point in Krishna’s life and philosophy. Akrura, the minister of kamsa brings the boys, Krishna and Balarama to the court. A series of fights ensue and Krishna kills kamsa fulfilling the prediction; releases his parents from prison. Krishna can never return to his childhood home. 

      Swayam varam, on the fifth night projects young Krishna and his brother returning home after schooling. Now they show themselves equipped to fulfil their duties. Then comes the colourful scenes of the marriages..  Rugmani taking the initiative to woe krishna, and later Krishna coaxing Sathyabhama  to accept him are two sides of a coin, really colourful. Swayamvaram is perhaps the most enacted performance in Guruvayoor temple as an offering by devotees for perfect marital alliances.

     Bana yudham on the sixth night, reveals the bravery of Sathyanhama who takes up a sword to fight while Krishna lay wounded and unconscious. The scenes alternate between Earth and heaven.

   vividha vadham on the seventh night  depicts Krishna’s life fulfilling his dharma as the destroyer of evil. The battle scenes are famous for the varied masks used to  present different characters.

Geethopadesam is the proclamation of Krishna’s philosophy on the battle field of kurukshetra rousing a despondent Arjuna to do his Dharma. The performance ends with the tender tale of friendship between Krishna and his childhood friend Kuchela. 

Swargarohanam is the last chapter of Lord Krishna’s life. The Yadava dynasty he founded becomes extinct in a fight among themselves. His brother enters into his last meditation.  Then Krishna enters a forest where he renounces his life blessing the hunter who killed him by mistake. His was a life for accomplishing a mission: the destruction of evil.

     Swargarohanam follows Avatharam on the ninth night, for death is followed by birth.

          The tendency to adapt from Kathakali, its make-up and costume, robs this art form of its native simplicity. Setting the songs to music has enhanced the tone to create the mood of bhakti. And the actors need more practice and more artistry and emotional involvement is perhaps the sad neglect owing to the security of patronage and lack of competition. For Guruvayoorappan feeds, clothes, shelters and pays the actors. Boys at the tender age of eight are recruited to learn this performing art.

        Krishnanattam now travels beyond India to European countries and to the U.S. Far removed from the immediacy of the intra-cultural horizon of India, can the gestural language of Krishnanttam convey the mystique of Krishna? Perhaps, cultural tourism does not pause to ask such questions.  But as long as the Indian mind yearns for a child, as long as men and women fall in love and as long as the human soul yearns to unite with the Eternal, as long as the unheard fluting enchant the Indian spirit, Krishnattam is bound to excite humanity.

                                                                                                PADMA JAYARAJ


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