Sri Harikumar put the story of Nala Charitham before us. He said that indicial story was the one told in Mahabharata, in Aranya Parvam. Pandavas were in excile living in forest (Aranyam). That time sage Brihadiswan told Uddhishthira the story of Naishada king Nala and his wife Damayanti, who first had all kinds of success, happy marriage and the kingdom, but following some play of destiny (symbolized by the pay of dice), the king lost the kingdom, all his possessions and powers, were exiled to forest, and there he even left his fair wife. After long hardships, including physical suffer and even near-dead condition (bitten by snake), he begot his mind and step by step works his life put to return to his previous, happy condition.
The lecturer mentioned that the plot of Unnayi Varriyar's drama follows the sketch of story given in Mahabharata, but not very exactly. The accents are different, the pace of the story (how fast the events and circumstances are changed) suits dramatic presentation. The author even introduced new characters –to portray the different ways, means or forces of destiny and comply with the rules of drama (where dark and light forces should be represented and objectified, as visible and understandable characters). For instance, Kaliya represents dark side of Nala's nature. The author presents Kaliya as jealous human, who possesses the heart of Nala. So the author gives us the idea - the dark side of Nala is hidden inside, beyond conscious level, until is evoked by some external circumstances. Still invisible, this dark side starts its destructive activity – and we see how the human makes his own life and lives of people dependent on him worse and worse, until the utmost limit is reached, i.e. everything is lost.
Unnayi Varriyar was a poet, scholar and dramatist, who lived in Kerala between 1674 and 1754 C.E. He belonged to the family whose duty was to make flower garlands for temple worship. Sri Narayanam told that the author was in contact with Nabiyars, Chakkiyars and Nangiyars, the artists whose duty was to perform in temple during rituals and festivals, play music and perform dance dramas such as Krishnattam, Kudyattam and Nangiyar Kuttu. He illustrated this close relation by telling the story. Once upon a time, one Kudiyatoom artist reproached Unnayi Varriar for neglecting his performances. The answer was "why don’t you come and see the garlands I make?" The next morning the artist came to see those garlands. And what he saw was flower design arranged in such a way to represent inscription of the sloka this particular artist performed the evening before. So the mutual tokens of interest and respect were exchanged.
The lecturer also highlighted some interesting symbolical nuances which make Nala Charitham play so appealing to human heart, so the scholars call it "the step from Bhava abhinaya to Rasa abhinaya". For example, there is one scene when Nala descends to his garden and dwells there thinking of Damayanti, and only her. At the same time she is also is in her garden thinking of Nala, as the noblest and the most handsome man among the others.
In contrast with Kathakali performance proper, the lecture was conducted in "chamber" atmosphere, when the actor can be seen without elaborate make-up and costume. This is the question many people ask when watching Kathakali – why so much canonized? Appearance (make-up, costume), presentation (gestures, movements) and even emotional content (bhavam) - everything is set to particular rule, with no deviation possible. It is like "missing human behind the vesham": Sometimes I feet that only the eyes are left free to express something from inside.
The one side of answer is that character is to be seen, not the actor as himself.
During the lecture this topic was somehow in the air, not pronounced directly, but implied by the thread of conversation between the lecturer and the students.
After explaining codified gestures and movements, the lecturer illustrated how rasa is created in Kathakali using very simple story and understandable gestures. He told the story of the bee captured by lotus and released by elephant, which comes to pond in search for water. The audience answered to his story with bright Hasyam, all students as one.
After that the lecturer turned to the meaning of transformation of Kathakali actor into a character by means of make-up and costume. He suggested looking for the answer in the archetypical nature of the characters of Kathakali plays. Nala, for instance, is collective image of noble human. Damayanti is embodiment of female grace and fidelity, along with endurance and consistency. Thus, I felt that further personification, development and elaboration of the character are left to imagination of the audience. Rasa (being the essence, the extract) wakes up and activates imagination, so the spectator him/herself becomes the part of the play and completes the story in his mind. This is very characteristic feature of real Art, pointed out by Emmanuel Kant in his "Aesthetics" - the real art widens the horizon, opens up new dimension, gives space for creative action for both the artist and spectator.
This lecture impressed me a lot, as I do share the approach followed by the lecturer, Sri MV Narayanan. He discussed the subject matter of the play in light of modernity. In general, the term refers to different processes featuring development and establishment of industrial society, in contrast to feudalism. The term is many-folded, includes phenomena of political, social, scientific realities. What is essential in context of art is, the age of modernity, staring from 16th and up to 20th century, highlights new approaches and attitudes towards reality, for example "the idea of the world as open to transformation, by human intervention" (Anthony Giddens), industrialization and the division of labor, wake of secularization, development of science towards rationalism with predominance of evidence over ideas and theological explanations, and philosophically "the loss of certainty, and the realization that certainty can never be established, once and for all" (Delanty). The latter idea is echoed in the field of Art as "the transitory, the fugitive, the contingent" (Baudelaire).
Sri MV Narayanan noticed that Nala Charitham is the first play written on human as a hero, not on Gods and Goddesses, which is good illustration of very characteristic shift of Modernity era - shift to empirical and objective world from Aristotle’s reality of ideas, further theological mysticism of medieval age and utopias of Enlightenment.
Sri MV Narayanan looked over the play of Nala Charitham as the story of the archetypical Man, representing the every human of this world. He stands in contrast to Gods, who belong to heaven and are not bound to this reality as human is.
This man meets the archetypical woman, possessing all kinds of female graces along with strong nature (denoted as Shakti in Puranic lexicon). In this context, the lecturer emphasized the symbolism of Damayanti Swayamwaram (selection of bride-groom), i.e. the way she chosen Nala as husband and how she stands by her decision once made. Four Gods proposed her, still she (or even her heart, as she fell in love with his image even before Swayamwara) had chosen the human, and to her choice she stood by.
The play covers considerable span of time, during which period Nala experiences all kinds of ordeals – prosperity, complete success, great happiness, pure love, and power as he was a king. He is subject to negative influences which are represented by Kaliya, the "Evil Genius", who possesses the heart of Nala and activates destructive forces sleeping inside until then.
Kaliya appears in human form, then somehow gets inside Nalan hears, and the dark side of Nalan comes to the stage instead of Kaliya. Nalan losses everything. He leaves his "best part" behind, in forest. He is dwelling in forest like a mad man, which seems to me to be his last stage of destruction beyond any measure.
The lecturer also pointed out the meaning of forest in the context of the play. The forest, as the cradle of civilization, is described in contrast to city (which is the feature and symbol of coming industrial era). Deprived of all the tools of civilization (even from his clothes), the man is represented as "the bare animal dwelling in forest" (as the lecturer put it). He losses his own identity. The inevitable question comes "Who Am I?", i.e. eternal existential question of identity - what makes me a human? Nalan runs through the forest as if in search for the answer. The next the question is "Where Am I?" He prays to Gods and they answer this question by giving him bliss of pure perception of surrounding harmony of nature. Nalan realizes the integrity of forest, he says that "the forest comprises all means for life the city has without urban sins." The next question is "how to live", which leads to inevitable "to be (to exist) or not to be".
The snake dying in fire is his last trial. Dark destructive forces oppose creative forces of life inside the utmost deepness of Nalan's InSe (the entity or holistic integral core of his human existence.) What he would chose - forest, life, harmony or fire, destruction, death? Is he able to sacrifice his own safety, his life for saving another life? Because it is snake and the fire are eternal symbol of danger and death.
Intermission: I read the experimental reports, where the monkeys were presented with different objects and electrical impulses of the cortex indicated the measure of response to particular object. The were two things evoking stable, definite and strong reaction - fear, excitement, activation on all physiological levels - snake and fire. Even symbolic representations, such as curvy object or bright flashy object activated such reactions. Thus, these two objects were recognized as the most fearful for primates, including Homo sapiens, on subconscious level.
He saves the snake (which appears to be Nagendra, the king of snakes), and it bites him. This symbolical death means the transition. Nalan losses his identity (which is symbolized by change of appearance and even his name is substituted for Dhanuka). By breaking illusionary boundaries of personal identity he is released from the influence of Kaliya (the blind dark force), which is "burning now affected by my poison" as Nagendra says.
He cannot come back to world directly (as there are no shortcuts in strategic games of destiny, as far as I see it). So Dhanuka should be led by some character of equivalent nature, but of a bit more experience. Thus Dhanuka serves Rituparna, as if to het impression of somebody equal to himself. This is well known fact, that we can deal with external forces and objects much better then with inner phenomena, thus project inner contents (such irrational fears) outside, on somebody else. We discuss and gossip over situations other people are going through, look how others do things, but actually by doing so, we often are trying to realize and understand ourselves, using the other people as the actors of the drama of our inner life. So Dhanuka comes to elder king Rituparna to beget himself back via the contact with somebody equal or similar to himself. Rituparna directs him to Damayanti - his intention to merry Damayanti issues in reunion of the happy couple. Nalan returns back to clear-way of his life. He wins the game of dice this time.
Sri MPS Namboodiri first gave a note on training and the system of education of Kathakali actors. He pointed out that the Nala Charitham is not included into the repertoire of Kathakali students, as in contrast with Kottayam plays, Nala Charitham imposes certain challenges and requires more experience which could be gaind only by several years of performing activities.
In many sources it is noted that Nala Charitham is the first "Rasa oriented" play comparing to "Bhava oriented" plays based on Puranic stories.
The lecturer also noticed that in Nala Charitham great importance is given to physical appearance of Nalan, the hero. That Nalan as the noble king should create impression of great splendor. The actor should also be handsome, tall and enchanting.