Nalacharitham

please note: I haven’t watched Kathakali for 15 years. My apologies, if I have made any mistakes in today’s post.
To those who don’t understand Malayalam, I am sorry, I do not know how to translate most of Kathakali terms.

By the time we reached the temple grounds the drummers were beating the drum rhythmically
“Nina Hurry up , Aranggukeli has already started”
Ammachi held my hand and started to walk fast.
I wasn’t in any hurry. If Arrangukeli which is almost at the beginning of the Kathakali performance has started only now, I knew we are in for a long session. What my grandmother sees in Kathakali is something I never understood. I really hoped I will be able to catch a few winks of sleep and that there won’t be any mosquitos.
As we walked weaving through the crowd I heard someone muttering
“What are the Suriani Kristiani’s doing in the temple ground?” I looked around to see who was speaking. Everyone around us pretended to be concentrating on what is happening on the stage
“So old already, still haven’t lost hope. Now trying to come to the temple ground and looking. Not enough, bringing the grand daughter also for support” I heard someone speaking very clearly.
“Come Nina” Ammachi pulled my hand
I pulled my hand out from Ammachi’s grasp and turned around
“Does any of you have any problem with me and my grandmother watching the Kathakali today?” I asked the people around me
“No, No, No such thing” Spoke a dignified looking old man.
vannirikkunnu shavangalu” muttered the woman who was standing next to him. She wore a set and mundu with a green border( attire worn by hindu woman).
“Keep quiet” The man tried to hush the woman
“Nina, come with me. Don’t listen to what others say” Ammachi started to pull my hand. I turned my head once more to look at the woman. Her face looked so angry. I didn’t know why she was angry. Why are people so upset, just because I am a Christian and want to watch Kathakali ? I thought of telling the woman that, 20 generations ago, all Malayalees including my family were hindus. I wondered how she would react if I told her that!
We found a place close to the stage and Ammachi placed the mat on the floor and sat down. I sat next to her. I hoped I won’t get any back ache! I am not used to sitting down on the floor without leaning on something to support my back bone. Why can’t these people put some chair around? conjused malayalees!!!!(stingy malayalees!!) I muttered.
“They are going to play nalacharitham*”Ammachi spoke
“How do you know that?”
Ammachi just shook her head. I looked at the stage. The kalivilakku(brass lamp) was the only light on stage. The Thiranottam (introducing the play) was going on. I watched the two singers, one holding a bell and the other one holding a cymbals singing and narrating the story. There were also two drummer on stage one playing the chenda and the other playing the maddalam.
There was something about the drummers and the singers, probably the absolute devotion on their faces, that makes you appreciate whatever they are trying to convey. Even though I didn’t understand anything that they were singing, I was beginning to enjoy the rhythm.
I tried to remember the story of king Nala of nalacharitham. Ammachi had told the story to me many years ago. All I could remember was how King Nala fell in love with Damayanthi and married her. I couldn’t figure out why they needed to create a Kathakali performance just for that.

I watched the main Character coming to the stage. There was pin drop silence in the audience. He started to dance by just moving his hands and eyes.The music, the drum beat and the hand movements started to flow in a rhythm and I felt I was drawn in to the center of it. I could see King Nala, the great emperor right infront of me. Soon another character came on to the stage
“Who is that?” I asked Ammachi
“Naradan(Saint Narada)”
I watched the excited conversation between Narada and king Nala, using only the hand movements and the eyes. King Nala was listening to the Saint Narada, who was telling him about the beautiful maiden named Damayanthi. Even though Damayanthi was no where in the stage, I could feel, what the king was feeling for her and how he fell in love with her.
The actors were bringing words sung by the singers to life. I felt so sorry for the king, when he was alone after Naradan left. I could feel the pain in his eyes, pain of the longing heart.
Story proceeded to the King roaming in the garden searching for some peace and solace.The king finds the golden swan(hamsam) sleeping by the side of the lake and captures the swan.
The fearful wailing of the swan, who knew its life is about to end at the hand of the king was heartbreaking. The music was somber and I waited anxiously to see, if the king would kill or release the poor swan. I wanted the king to release the swan and was overjoyed when the king felt sorry for the swan and released him.
I watched the swan’s relief on being free again, free to fly, free to be alive and live another day, free to be back with his family. The swan was so close to losing all that just a few moments ago..
Now it was the swan’s turn to pay back for his freedom. I watched the joy on the king’s face, when the swan told him that he would bring the king what his heart desires. The beautiful maiden.
Would the swan be succesfull? I didn’t know. The players took a short break.
Somewhere in the distance a rooster started to crow. Roosters that crow at odd hours must be shot to death, I thought.
I looked at my grandmother. I did notice during the show that Ammachi was looking around occassionally as though she was looking for someone. She turned her head again to look at the crowd behind us and I asked her
“Who are you looking for Ammachi?”
“Oh nothing Nina. I wasn’t looking for anyone in particular. I was just looking to see if there is anyone from near our house. So we will have company to walk back home”
“oh ok”
But that didn’t make sense. I always thought Methran Thambi’s wife disliked company. She always preferred to be alone. I turned my head to look at the people sitting behind us. Most of the people have gone back home. They must have gone home to catch a few winks of sleep before going to work in the morning. I looked at my watch. It was 4 Am. It was unbelievable. I watched a kathakali performance from 9.45pm till 4 am.
The actors were back in the stage again.
“that is Damayanthi with her maid” Ammachi spoke
“I know” I answered.
Ammachi stared at me, trying to see if I was ok. I smiled and Ammachi nodded her head. Perhaps she understood, I caught the kathakali premam, and now there is no turning back.
Nalacharitham part 1 was over when Damayanthi informed the golden swan that, she too is in love with King Nala and the swan rushed to inform the King of the good news. I watched everyone around me getting up and leaving. I didn’t want to get up. I looked around hoping to see the actor who played Nala one last time. Somewhere deep in my heart, I wanted to share a part of the love he felt for Damayanthi, share a part of the heart that released an innocent swan.
“Don’t you want to get up?” Ammachi asked
I slowly got up, still looking at the empty stage. May be the actor would come out to take the lamp.
I helped Ammachi to get up. I took the mat from the floor and folded it. As I walked out of the temple ground, I looked back once more at the empty stage.
“Who are you looking for?” Ammachi asked
“No one” I lied
The sun was alomost coming up from the horizon announcing the arrival of another day. Ammachi and I walked slowly, enjoying the early morning breeze. All the shops except the coffe shop was closed. Some people were still sleeping on the shop front. Most of them looked like a mummy, with their blankets wrapped all around them. Soon the shop owner would come to open his shop and kick them out. Plight of the homeless people. Only the night and the shopfront belongs to them.

Ahead of us, we saw the first bus to Trivandrum stopping near the coffee shop and the driver alighting from the bus and ordering the coffee.
“Do you want coffee?” I asked Ammachi
She didn’t respond. Only then I looked at her face. There were tears rolling down her cheeks
“What happend? Why are you crying? Is your legs hurting?”
“I can’t Nina”
“Can’t what Ammachi?”
“I can’t wait anymore”
*Nalacharitham: Was written by Unnai Warrier in the 16th century, tells the story of King Nala, who loses his kingdom to his brother in a gambling bet, his wife in the forest and gains everything including Damayanthi at the end.

11 thoughts on “Nalacharitham

  1. oh dear whats wrong

    ive only watch bits n pieces of short kathakali performances – one of these days i want to watch this night to dawn performances n theyyam as well

  2. cant wait…

    ohhh the suspese is 2 much.

    ur description of kathakali was amazin….’nalacharitham’ is te best 2 begin watchin kathakali with..i say tht coz even ive seen it .:-)

    i love te part whr she is talkin 2 te hamsam.

    [ravivarma’ painting- hamsa damayanti is awesum]

  3. you are the queen of suspense!!!aah i too cant wait….this post makes me want to see kathakali..have never seen the performance

  4. talk about keeping us readers on a suspense! hmpf..not taken well, Ms. Nina.

    kathakali brought back memories — of the temple near my home, how everyone looked so beautiful in the dimlight watching kathakali — ha, the smell of home.

  5. Sujit: Thank you

    Visithra:Believe me, you will enjoy Kathakali…I hope you will get to watch it one day

    Niehal: one more day!

    Vidya: I love the part where Nala questions Damayanthi…

    Flyaway: Queen of suspense??

    Upsilamba: Women wearing Neriyathu with long hair…and the little kids running around in their pattu pavada and the appachan’s with their toothless grin nodding their head with the music…That is the best of Kathakali audience!

    Starry: I think there is a North American organization..that organizes Kathakali performance in US… I hope you will be able to watch Kathakali performance..

  6. while i was reading, my thoughts drifted into a heated dream discussion i was having with one of my father’s sisters…sounded just like that woman who taunted you both at the play.
    and then i wondered why my bp started rising and realised i was fighting in my day dream with someone who is possibly resting in moronic kerala!!hehe

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