Arts & Events

New: Around & About--Theater, Dance: 'Kathakali Ramayana in Berkeley' Monday through Wednesday at Hillside Club

Ken Bullock
Saturday October 15, 2016 - 03:41:00 PM

A remarkable, highly unusual performing arts event at the beginning of the week, at 8 p. m. Monday through Wednesday October 17-19, in the wonderful rustic intimacy of Berkeley's Hillside Club: 'Kathakali Ramayana in Berkeley,' with Kalamandalam Manoj in performance, presented by Graeme and Eve Vanderstoel, co-sponsored by SACHI.  

('Kathakali Ramayana in Berkeley' was programmed to correspond with the SF Asian Art Museum exhibit, 'The Rama Epic,' opening later this week in the San Francisco Civic Center.) 

Kathakali, one of the very oldest theater and performing art forms in the world, is an elaborate dance-drama, like a great, illustrated storybook unfolding, with stories taken from the ancient Indian epics of The Ramayana and The Mahabharata. Its predecessors--the Sanscrit theater Kuttiyattam and Krishnanattam, were originally meant to be performed in temples and featured spoken roles for the actor-dancers. Kathakali became a more popular art, performed in villages, but the actors don't speak; the narrative and dialogic parts are sung with the actors concentrating on dance and gesture, reenacting the dialogue through hieroglyphic-like sign language (mudras) and extraordinary facial expressions amplified by colorful, very sophisticated make-up that takes hours to apply and beautiful costumes and crowns. ('Ramayana Kathakali's' shows features the backstage work of one of the finest contemporary make-up artists, Kalamandalam Sukumaram.) The virtuosic movements and gestures are among the most unusual in classical Indian dance, some allied to martial arts, and performed to singing and remarkable drumming. (The Berkeley shows will be to prerecorded music and voice.) 

Berkeley has been a rare location for Kathakali the past decades: the late K. P. Kunhiraman of Kalakshetra and his wife Katherine made it their home since the 1970s, teaching South Indian classical dance through their Kalanjali School, which Katherine continues to produce. Kunhiraman was only able to play occasional scenes or demonstrations of Kathakali, of which he was a second-generation performer, rare now in India. 

(I remember all but dragging friends to see a very rare Krishnanattam performance in Golden Gate Park years ago. One friend--not an aficienado of theater or Indian arts particularly, gleefully told me mid-performance how rapt he was, watching something he had feared would be esoteric--"It's like being a kid again! And it can be so funny!") 

Kalamandalam Manoj, famous for playing many roles of this great repertory theater, will take up two of his most famous across the three scenes from plays that will be presented: the Demon king Ravana and the heroic monkey general Hanuman. Hanuman has deliberately humorous moments, but even Ravana is often played like the comic ogre, to frighten and delight village children. As in so much great theater, beauty, power and humor coexist on the same stage. 

Kathakali and its related styles has influenced other performance forms in South and Southeast Asia, notably in Indonesia, but also as far afield as Tibet, China and Japan, where its techniques were brought by Buddhist monks as teaching tools. In modern times, it's been a constant influence on European theater, in particular ariane Mnoushkine and her Théâtre du Soleil, in Paris since 1964, and the great Jerzy Grotowski, probably the most influential man of the theater since 1950. 

On Monday night, Manoj will perform a "monologue" (but with plenty of action!) from the mid-18th century play 'Ravanodbhava,' in which Ravana recalls his early childhood and his mother's ambitions for him. Tuesday will see Manoj as Ravana again, in his Kingdom of Lanka, trying to woo the virtuous Sita, wife of Lord Rama, who Ravana's kidnapped and is holding captive in a beautiful palace--until his wife Mandodari intervenes, from the late 16th century play Torana Yudha. On Wednesday, Manoj will play Hanuman, searching for his ally Lord Rama's kidnapped wife, wrecking havoc wherever he goes, finally finding Sita in Ravana's palace garden, giving her rama's ring as proof of identity, a scene also from Torana Yudha. 

Manoj--who was trained at Kalamandalam, the premier Kathakali academy, and has appeared worldwide, including in 'Kathakali King Lear' at the Old Globe Theatre in London--will be joined onstage by guest artists Roshni Pillai and Jan Zeitlin, both traditionally trained Kathakali performers who have performed widely in Kerala, home state of Kathakali, and by Janhavi Pillai, making her debut as Ravana's wife Mandodari. 

Kaladharan Viswanath, a famous tour producer, who has lectured widely at American universities, has organized this tour. He'll introduce and explain the episodes, which will also be synopsized in the program. Graeme Vanderstoel is proprietor of Books on Asia and the Islamic World in El Cerrito and former program director of the American Society for Eastern Arts in san Francisco, with longtime experience in the production of touring shows from Eastern, South and Southeast Asia. 

Highly recommended! Kathakali brings so much to the stage, it's like aeeing several forms of classical and popular art combined in a single performance.  

Monday through Wednesday at 8 p. m., the Hillside Club, 2286 Cedar (three blocks east of Shattuck, between Spruce and Arch). $30 general, $22 students, seniors SACHI members--at the door or through Inquiries: 527-2882