A Mystical Journey from Cheruthuruthy to Shakespeare's Globe
by Elizabeth Menon
William Shakespeare and Kerala: what do they have in common? Very little, one would say, till one visited Shakespeare's Globe in London. One would not expect to see the tricoloured Indian National Flag swaying in the evening breeze on the banks of river Thames. The unexpected happened when Kathakali artistes from Cheruthuruthy in Kerala and Annette Leday performed at the Shakespeare's Globe, organised by the Annette Leday / Keli Company in association with the International Shakespeare Globe centre Ltd. The Indian National Flag was at full mast for the two weeks the group performed at the Globe. Annette Leday and David McRuvie directed the play; Annette also plays Cordelia. Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair and K Kumaran Nair did the choreography. K Marumakan Raja did the Malayalam translation and the songs were sung in Malayalam. This mesmeric splendour of a play brought a new language of colour, gesture, rhythm and music to King Lear and Shakespeare.
Legend has it that Parasurama, sixth incarnation of Vishnu, wished for a place to retreat and Varuna, god of sea, granted him as much land as he could cover, with one throw of his axe. Parasurama threw his axe with a mighty sweep and the land emerged from the sea to create a strip of magic that came to be called Kerala. Myths and legends may have some elements of truth; this paradise of a land, as the legend goes, was created for retreat where one could find inner peace and solitude. Kerala, the land of exotic coconut groves and backwaters with its art and culture provide just that: solace to millions. The unique art form called Kathakali, which literally translates to 'Story-play', originates from this state. It is perhaps comparable to a ballet, opera or a dance-drama, although one can see that Kathakali is much more than any one or all collectively.
The new Globe in London is the hard work of many people and the vision of one man, its American founder, Sam Wanamaker. The Actor, Director, Producer, founded a Trust in 1970, what was to become the 'Shakespeare Globe Trust', for the reconstruction of the theatre for permanent exhibition and also an Education Centre. This followed 23 years of endless research into the shape of the original Globe, fund raising and planning the reconstruction. Sam Wanamaker died on 18 December 1993, having finished just the structure of the exhibition undercroft and the theatre building work only just started! But the Trust finished the project as accurate to the original Globe of 1599 as was possible, and the Globe was opened by Her Majesty the Queen in June 1997!
Shakespeare could not have dreamt that Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair would play King Lear, to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the opening of the Globe Theatre. The Globe's mission is to explore the influence and impact of Shakespeare on other cultures in the world. Shakespearean plays are known even to the remote villagers in Kerala and therefore it is no surprise that the artistes from Cheruthuruthy could bring 'King Lear' to life in Kathakali, the ancient art form from Kerala, the land of 100% literacy rate. The story was adapted to emphasise the powerful characters, displaying different characteristics in their make-up and costume. The spectacular make-up, chutti and the headdress help the actor to enter the world of the superhuman, gods and demons. Kathakali and King Lear may sound like an odd combination, and so do Sadanam Annette Leday and Kathakali; but when Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair made his grant entrance, Kathakali and Shakespeare were synonymous! The ceremonial bronze lamp was lit and thus the stage was rendered sacred for the play to begin. The drums, maddalam and chenda filled the air with celestial music. Sadanam Harikumar and sadanam Jyoti, sang in Malayalam; the chingilam (Gong) and ilathaalam(Cymbals) played by these two singers complimented the melody. The cadence of each song was determined by the mood that was required. The drums began to beat faster and the trembling thiraseela (Curtain) was removed revealing the spectacular vision behind. Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair's King Lear looked majestic, along with his three daughters, Cordelia, Goneril and Reagan.
The Kathakali adaptation concentrated mainly on King Lear and his three daughters, Regan, Goneril and Cordelia and King of France. The painstaking make-up was put on with such care, that each character was a spectacular vision of magic. The 'Vesham', the combination of costume, ornaments and make-up, which represents individual characters and the most integral part of Kathakali, was done with absolute precision. If the main characters looked exotic, the others looked just as extraordinary and spectacular! The intensity of King Lear's conflict, Cordelia's sheer beauty and simplicity, Regan's and Goneril's spitefulness and the nobility of King of France were portrayed with extreme clarity, using specific style of make-up and dominant colours. King Lear was 'Kathi', defined by pride and anger; basic colours being green and red: King of France was 'Pacha', defined by nobility and virtue; basic colour being green: Regan and Goneril were 'Kari', defined by demonic tendencies; basic colour for Regan was blue and black for Goneril: Cordelia was 'Female Minukku', basic colour being sparkling orange: The Soldier was 'Male minukku' with an imposing black moustache. Kathi and Pacha wore the 'Kireedam' (Crown) and 'Chutti'; the mask-like make up fascinated the crowd! It is no surprise that 'Chutti', which takes many hours to perfect, has been given a grant entry into the Guinness Book as 'The make up with more than 15cm thickness'.
The story unfolded like a mystical play. King Lear decided to give the finest part of his land to the daughter who would express her love for him most eloquently. And to his utter dismay, his favourite daughter, Cordelia refuses to say anything; therefore he disinherits Cordelia. King of France arrives with such splendour that most of the audience were on their feet! 'Sringara rasa' (Sentiment of love) enacted by the three daughters, to capture the attention of King of France was delightful! King Lear as a mad man needed no words to express his anger or sadness and Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair was stunning! The reunion of King Lear and Cordelia was such that one could see a few tearful eyes in the audience.
The music and the drums added melody that created a scene even beyond William Shakespeare's imagination. King Lear arrives in full state into the battlefield and he approaches Cordelia's body, looking for signs of life. He dies of a broken heart, believing that his beloved daughter may still be alive. Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair's superb acting was beyond words; it showed the Master at his best. Body movements, hands, face and eyes created a new language that did not require words or scenery: one felt that words would have been superfluous! It was poetry in motion, unrolling itself in front of a spellbound audience! The singing in the back ground echoed in Malayalam, "Aaromale Makale, kaanuka Pithaaavine……uriyadillinimel, oru nalaum..illa", which was heart breaking, (Beloved daughter, open your eyes and look at me…. . she will never utter another word,… ever again .. .) expressing the anguish of a loving father. The artistes gave their all, to bring King Lear and Kathakali to life.
The artistes, Sadanam Annette Leday, David McRuvie and the Globe management deserve world acclaim for their magnificent show. The 'Thiraseela' (curtain) brought the audience back to the real world from the exotic world of Kathakali and King Lear. And I will never forget meeting Kalamandalam Padmanabhan Nair backstage after the play – a very humble man in spite of being the best Kathakali artist in Kerala and I felt honoured to have met Shakespear’s ‘King Lear! I would say that the journey from Cheruthuruthy to Shakespeare's Globe was magical!