After a hiatus of several years, I finally returned to the Singapore International Festival of Arts, “which began as a showcase for highbrow, largely European performance pieces, but has brought in edgier acts from both Europe and Asia in recent years.” Last night’s performance, “Smriti Padha (Memory Route)” at Victoria Theatre, featured dancers from Kerala Kalamandalam in Thrissur, India, and was inspired by a performance that took place in Singapore in the 1950s. Then, Kerala Kalamandalam performed “Dussasana Vadham” (or “The Slaying Of Dussasana”) in the same theatre, in collaboration with the late K.P. Bhaskar, the founder of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy.
“The Slaying Of Dussasana” was the pièce de résistance of “Smriti Padha (Memory Route),” and was intense and sublime. The dancers who portrayed Duryodhana and Dussasana were just remarkable—utter masters of navarasam, or a highly-stylised invocation of bhava (expression). The relatively small size of Victoria Theatre also allowed for a certain intimacy with these incredibly gifted artists; even from my vantage point, I was able to appreciate the arts’ riotous costumes and makeup. (The theatre was only half-full, as is the case with many non-Western productions in Singapore in my experience.)
However, the English surtitles only provided a very brief outline of the events dramatized on stage, and omitted all explanations, many of which were key in understanding the unfolding narrative. For example, the audience is never informed, either in the surtitles or in the playbill, that Draupadi/Panchali is married to all five Pandavas, which is why Yudhistra “loses” her in a rigged game of dice, but Bheema avenges her humiliation. Another example: it was never revealed that her attempted disrobing took place during her menstrual period, and that she vowed that she would not tie her hair until she had washed it with the blood from Dussasana’s chest. I wonder how theatre-goers who had no previous knowledge of the Mahabharata received these scenes (without the requisite scaffolding); I know I was better able to appreciate the truly brilliant bodily nuances and emotional range of the performers because I have this vast and intricate knowledge.
“The Slaying Of Dussasana” was bookended by a prologue (kaleri movements and Kathakali techniques) and an epilogue (Mohiniyattam), but while the choreography, by Santha Bhaskar of Bhaskar’s Arts Academy (K.P. Bhaskar’s wife and a star in her own right), was stellar, the young dancers lacked that je ne sais quoi of their more experienced colleagues. In time, in time.
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Traditionally, a Kathakali performance is usually conducted at night and ends in early morning, and an event last weekend, “Discover the World of Kathakali,” which included a pre-dawn training session and a make-up and costume demonstration by Kerala Kalamandalam and Bhaskar’s Arts Academy in Fort Canning Park, replicated much of the magic of viewing the art under the cover of darkness. It was really lovely to share with my daughter the marvelous aesthetics of a dance form that is of her direct cultural heritage.