A Requiem in Hindolam

Non-Hindu Kathakali singer’s insult-riddled life finds theatre portrayal

By Sreevalsan Thiyyadi                                                       

 Kalamandalam Hyderali

Fifty-seven years after Kathakali had its first tryst with a non-Hindu on stage, the socio-religious turbulence it entailed for the classical ballet and the late musician have found portrayal in a play, thanks to a cultural initiative in Delhi.

The life and times of the celebrated as well as sidelined Kalamandalam Hyderali, who sang for the Kerala dance-drama for four-and-a-half decades till his untimely death in early 2006, came into deep focus in a two-hour production when it was staged in the Indian capital in end-March 2014.

Conceived by ‘Janasamskriti’ theatre group, the show premiered by Kala Keralam cultural club featured as many as 55 actors — some of them donning roles more than one and two. Presented before the public for first time after having won a national award earlier this month, the work has been titled Enthiha Man Maanase — a famed Kathakali song Hyderali popularized while exploring with empathy the existential pangs of the mythological king Karna.

Hyderali, much like the charioteer family-raised tragic hero in the Mahabharata, had won critical acclaim for his talent and skills, but the ‘outsider’ tag simultaneously earned him a string of insult, point out M V Santhosh and Ajith G Maniyan, directors of the amateur play scripted by Samkutty Pattomkari, also a Malayali.

Enthiha Man Maanase is a project realized after 18 days of rehearsal that pooled in the efforts of 64 artistes and technicians on and behind the stage, reveals Santhosh of Janasamskriti which has produced 400 plays in the last 27 years of existence.

Enthiha ManmanaSe

Some of them had little exposure to theatre, adds Ajith, the younger in the director duo which hails from Kannur in North Malabar. “It is no easy task to bring together resources of this large scale in a busy city like Delhi,” points out Ajith who works with the Song and Drama division of Information and Broadcasting Ministry.

Dr Pattomkari, who belongs to Kallara near Kottayam, recalls he wrote the script “unexpectedly” last year when the idea of a play on the Kathakali vocalist kept cropping up at informal get-togethers of theatre enthusiasts in Delhi.

The play goes by linear narration, beginning from Hyderali’s childhood and ending with his death in a road accident at age 59 — when the car he drove to his alma mater in central Kerala’s Cheruthuruthi (ahead of a Kathakali show he was to participate) met with an accident on January 5, 2006. The musician is portrayed by three artistes in various stages of his life, besides by a narrator who intermittently appears and recalls one’s own experiences, putting them in perspective.

“The unpleasant episodes a gentle Hyderali underwent and accepted stoically captured my attention. I began probing further into them,” notes the writer, who graduated in fine arts (from RLV College in Tripunithura near Kochi) and did his MA in performing arts (from the School of Drama under the University of Calicut) before completing his PhD in theatre from Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi.

Enthiha Man Maanase won the award for the second best drama in the Pravasi category competition the Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi held on March 1. “The production stands on par with those by better-known counterparts back in Kerala,” noted Soorya Krishnamoorthy, chairman of the Thrissur-headquartered organization which functions under the state government.

The play goes by linear narration, beginning from Hyderali’s childhood and ending with his death in a road accident at age 59 — when the car he drove to his alma mater in central Kerala’s Cheruthuruthi (ahead of a Kathakali show he was to participate) met with an accident. The musician is portrayed by three artistes in various stages of his life, besides by a narrator who intermittently appears and recalls one’s own experiences, putting them in perspective.

Born in Wadakanchery of Thrissur district to a small-time singer of Mappilappattu folk music, Hyderali spent a childhood plagued with poverty as his father failed to prosper in his tea-shack business and died prematurely. A local-level music competition fetches the little boy the first prize, leading to his entry to the state’s premier classical arts institution — courtesy a big-amount deposit volunteered by a patron — “incidentally a Christian”, as Hyderali later recalls in his memoir.

Enthiha Man Maanase -

At Kalamandalam where he joins as a Kathakali music student aged 11 in 1957, Hyderali gets a culture shock seeing a heady cocktail of training classes in classical and traditional art forms with ethos and themes from Hinduism. The boy does get his small band of supporting friends and teachers, but is largely ignored and treated as an outcaste.

As a student midway his six-year course during which he also sang for film-music nites called Ganamela, Hyderali is smartly evicted from a night-long Kathakali programme that Kalamandalam stages at a temple in Pattambi of Palakkad district. A bigger scar awaits him when, after a show in a two-night programme the institution stages in Chendamangalam near Kochi, the troupe manager packs him off, citing local protest against the performance by a “Muslim boy in a Hindu art” with a 350-year-old history steeped in feudal values.

 Enthiha ManmanaSe

The deepest wound, Hyderali recounts, was at the debut stage of a disciple at FACT Kathakali School in Ernakulam district’s industrial belt of Eloor near Aluva where he had been working since 1965.

Margi Damu, the pupil, was to sing with him at a temple in the latter’s village near Haripad in Travancore, where Hyderali, ironically, had big fan following. Protest against the entry of a non-Hindu led the organisers to “compromise” by pulling down a part of the temple’s compound wall so as to “accommodate” the lead musician in a corner of the extended stage that technically fell outside its premises. “My ‘sareeram’ (body) was outside the temple; my ‘saareeram’ (voice) inside it,” Hyderali later famously recounts the late-1970s incident by when he had also gained named as a musician for Mohiniyattam dance and went on to compose Carnatic compositions.

Enthiha ManmanaSe

Enthiha Man Maanase employs certain intelligent theatre techniques. For instance, the ‘Haripad incident’ is depicted by a crowd of actors who are first listeners of it a public speech by Hyderali. The audience is beckoned to its finer details through a flashback when the same men, women and children are suddenly silhouetted into a dusk-time gathering at the temple where they sit and watch the Kathakali show that has the musician singing from outside its precincts.

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Also, ‘Kalle Kaniville’, the score that fetched Hyderali his first recognition as a child, finds repetition in instrumental tone amid latter-half poignant scenes — the literary meaning of the opening words being ‘Hey Stone, you don’t have compassion?’

The play ends with Hyderali joining the entire crew’s chorus loud yet calm chorus against religious fanaticism.
Enthiha ManmanaSe

The play had its set of defects as well.

These include a couple of flips: Hyderali is seen wearing his mundu to the left while singing for Kathakali and a Namboodiri has his sacred thread slung from the right shoulder. Minor-category errors.

Middle-level mistakes: A deaf Vallathol swaying his head in appreciation of Hyderali's music at his entry test in Kalamandalam. (Well, happened to suddenly remind one of a related joke by late satirist VKN.) Also, Kalamandalam troupe is shown to present a Karnasapatham in Pattambi in the cusp of 1960 (when Hyderali is not listed among the musicians at the show though he already had his arangettam). This is unlikely, given that the Mali Madhavan Nair story-play gained popularity much later.

One over-arching fault, arguably, is the big-picture projection: the drama may give the innocent audience the strong impression that Hyderali's was a story of insults — and insults alone. This, when the more informed know that he was highly celebrated all the same.

Also there seemed some laboured effort to infuse comedy into the play, perhaps in a bid to take breaks from the monochrome melancholy.

Further, the narrator — with his grey-painted head and a fair torso with hairs all over — as the final-stage Hyderali has absolutely no similarity with the musician whose looks are fresh in the minds of present-day Kathakali buffs. (All the same, the face and physique of Kalamandalam founder poet Vallothol and Hyderali’s Kathakali music guru Neelakantan Nambisan in the play do bear admirable resemblance to the original figures.)

Overall, though, the effort behind Enthiha Man Maanase deserves special appreciation. More so, that it took an upcountry-living Keralites to churn out a play on an iconic musician down south of the peninsula.

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