Article Title

An Ocean of Possibilities: From Lokadharmī to Nātyadharmī in a Kathakaḷi Santānagōpālam


In lieu of an abstract, the first paragraph of the essay follows:

Kathakaḷi dance-drama is like a vast and deep ocean. Some may come to a performance with their hands· cupped and only be able to take away what doesn't slip through their fingers. Others may come with a small vessel, and be able to drink that. And still others may come with a huge cooking pot and take away so much more!

The above paraphrase of a highly reflexive story about kathakaḷi1 and its relationship to its audiences was told to me recently during an extended research trip to Kerala, India, by V. R. Prabodhachandran Nayar, a life-long appreciator of kathakaḷi and Professor of Linguistics at the University of Kerala. Sitting on the veranda of his wife's family home on a quiet back alleyway in Thiruvananthapuram, the capital city of Kerala, he spoke as we were at work translating Santānagōpālam,2 a kathakaḷi play text (āttakatha, i.e. "enacted story") by Mandavapalli Ittiraricha Menon (1747-94).3 To be sure, I had selected Santānagōpālam for translation for all the "wrong" literary reasons. As Prabodhachandran Nayar, linguist and appreciator of good Sanskrit and Malayalam poetry, explained, Santānagōpālam simply "isn't great poetry. There's too much repetition, and the vocabulary is meager." In fact, Santānagōpālam is such "bad" poetry that Prabodhachandran Nayar had never bothered to read a printed version of the text before I convinced him to read it with me. As a text on the page, Santānagōpālam simply cannot compare to the poetic richness and beauty of the four formative kathakaḷi texts (Baka Vadham, Kirmīra Vadham, Kalyāna Saugandhikam, and Kālakēya Vadham) by the Raja of Kottayam (c.1645-1716) or the much heralded four-part version of the Naja-Damayantī story by Unnayi Variyar (?1675-?1716). Variyar's Nala Caritam in particular has been singled out as "the highest peak in kathakaḷi literature"4 and therefore, along with the Kottayam plays, finds its way into the required syllabi of Malayalam literature courses and/or critical editions and commentaries.

Comparative Drama is carried by JSTOR and Project MUSE.