"The uniqueness of kathakali, the painted face, the vigorous masculine movements, dramatisation, mysticism, the sounds of chenda, edakka and maddalam attracted me" - Prabal Gupta
Dressed in a white sari with a blue border and a blue jacket, and wearing a snake crown, Cleopatra expresses her love for Mark Antony in Sanskrit verses, set in the ragas Shankarabharanam and Purvi Kalyani.
The tragic tale of Cleopatra came alive, for the first time, as a kathakali narrative at National Gallery of Modern Art in Bengaluru on July 25 as the city-based kathakali exponent Prabal Gupta celebrated 25 years of his dancing career. To mark the occasion, he performed a solo adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra, presenting it as Cleopatra—The Last Pharaoh of Egypt.
Gupta had taken seven months to create the show, which he dedicated to his gurus. “A lot of research on music composition and choreography, and numerous rehearsals went into the making of the 70-minute show,” said Gupta, 39, a specialist in stree vesham (female characters).
Weaving in Cleopatra’s story, which is set in the Egyptian empire, into an Indian art form was not easy. The biggest challenge was to build a narrative, which captured the story with all its complex emotions and cultural context, for a solo performance without compromising on the rich tradition of the art form.
“The piece speaks of Cleopatra’s manipulation of Julius Caesar and Mark Antony in her attempt to save the Egyptian empire and the misunderstandings between them that result in the tragic end,” said Gupta. “Sadanam P.V. Balakrishnan and Shankar Rajaram guided me in my research.”
Together, they chose the sopanam (religious in nature) style of singing, and picked the right ragas to match the mood of the characters and the sequence. If raga Vekata was used to depict Cleopatra’s anger when she hears about Antony’s marriage to Octavia, raga Ahari complemented the scene where she declares war against Caesar and raga Shivaranjini was used to bring out the sorrow of Cleopatra’s death.
Rajaram’s script, along with renditions by Sadanam Sivadasan and Sadanam Jyotish Babu and the ensemble of artistes Sadanam Ramakrishnan (on the chenda and edakka) and Sadanam Devadasan (on the maddalam) made the performance memorable for Gupta.
So, what draws him to female characters? “I have explored almost all the main female characters from Indian mythology—from Poothana, Parvati, Damayanti and Lalita to Urvashi. However, the specialisation in stree veshams just happened, it was not planned,” said Gupta. “In 2007, as a tribute to my first guru Kalamandalam Govindan Kutty, I did the role of Poothana in Poothana Moksham. I was lauded for the performance by my senior teachers and they encouraged me to specialise in it.”
How difficult is it for a male artiste to play a female character? “The aharya or external appearance [costume, makeup and jewellery] helps me look feminine,” said Gupta. “But most importantly, as a performer, I need to enter the character I am playing. Fifteen minutes before I go on the stage, I stop talking to people and meditate. The mind undergoes a transformation.”
The technique seems to be working for Gupta. “I have had people coming up to me to congratulate me and being surprised at finding out that I am a man,” he said. “Some young men find me beautiful and have proposed to me.”
Extensive research and preparation go into each role, but Gupta considers it a challenge. “Playing Parvati, Urvashi and Lalita was challenging. Last year, I performed Lady Macbeth at the 450th birth anniversary of Shakespeare,” said Gupta. “But Cleopatra has complex taala [rhythm] concepts, ragas and a complicated storyline. The English commentary in between the songs provides a link to help the audience understand the solo performance.”
How did a Bengali boy become acquainted with an art form that has its roots in Kerala? Gupta’s mother was passionate about learning dance, but she could not fulfil her dream, so she made her son take lessons in odissi. He then learnt bharatnatyam for five years. However, he fell in love with kathakali and decided to pursue it as a career. “I chose the tougher path, I guess,” said Gupta, who did his master’s in literature.
“Kathakali became popular in Kolkata after Rabindranath Tagore called Kelu Nair to the city,” said Gupta. “It found a place in Tagore’s dance dramas. Soon, Kalamandalam Govindan Kutty moved to Kolkata and kathakali was taught at graduate and postgraduate levels in both Rabindra Bharati University and Visva Bharati University. However, I was enamoured by the art form after meeting Kalamandalam Govindan Kutty. The uniqueness of kathakali, the painted face, the vigorous masculine movements, dramatisation, mysticism, the sounds of chenda, edakka and maddalam attracted me.” He later trained under Sadanam Balakrishnan.
Gupta moved to Bengaluru in 2003 to be closer to his gurus and make the art form popular in other cities. “Sadly, I find no takers for kathakali here,” he said. However, it has not deterred Gupta from trying new things. For any dance form to grow, one needs to experiment without moving out of the tradition, he said. “I have experimented with a fusion of different forms. If Chitrangadha was a fusion of kathakali, odissi and bharatnatyam, Tagore’s Shyama was a confluence of yakshagana [a theatre form], kathakali and odissi. A choreography piece called When Parallels Meet had a fusion of kathakali and odissi.”
Gupta has also written articles and research papers on his experiments with different art forms. He draws parallels between Greek theatre and kathakali. “The Greek theatre began its festivals by honouring the god Dionysus. Similarly, in kathakali, the performance begins with thodayam or the first song, which is dedicated to Lord Ganesha, Lord Krishna, Lord Shiva and Goddess Mookambika,” said Gupta. “The Shakespearean influence on kathakali also cannot be ruled out as both these theatre traditions flourished in the 17th century and relied on aristocratic patronage. Both are in languages that are highly stylised and poetic. The major characters in each are extraordinary individuals. In both the forms, ethical choice, justice and the importance of self-realisation are dominant themes.”
Gupta believes that he was born to be a kathakali artiste, and the reaction he gets from his audience after each performance is a reassurance. “Once, I played the role of Lord Krishna in Geethopadesam and the people cried even when they greeted me after the performance,” he said. “That, till date, is the greatest compliment.”