Bhima, a professional kathakali dancer, is playing his namesake from the ancient Indian epic, the Mahabharata. The dedicated actor that he is, he loses himself in the role. Over time, he stops being able to differentiate between the character and reality.
Soon, he forgets his own identity and assumes the role of Bhima, the warrior, who has killed Duryodhana, the antagonist of the story. And though the latter has traditionally been looked upon as the villain, Bhima, the kathakali dancer, can’t come to terms with the fact that he has taken another man’s life, even in his fantasy. As a result, Bhima the dancer is admitted to a mental asylum.
That’s the premise of Dumb Dancer, a kathakali dance drama written by Indian playwright, Asif Currimbhoy, in 1961. The psychological thriller incorporates element of valour from the Mahabharata, combined with the stigma and struggle attached with mental illnesses, expressed though the traditional dance form, kathakali.
“Currimbhoy spent six years visiting Kerala Kalamandalam in Thissur, a noted kathakali institution. It was here that he realised that the dance form would be the best mode of expression to showcase Bhima’s dilemma,” says Sasidharan Naduvil (54), a Kerala-based playwright and theatre director. His adaptation of the original script will premiere at theKeli Rural Theatre Festival 2017 at Prithvi Theatre this weekend.
Naduvil first read Dumb Dancer 26 years ago, and has previously adapted the play at different stages of his career. The first two adaptations, says Naduvil, were short and simplified to make the story relatable to those not familiar with mythology. The latest adaptation runs for a non-stop 90 minutes, and occasionally steers away from the original story to include other landmark plot points from the epic. “I have included the storyline around the wax palace the Pandavas live in. It adds to the intensity of Bhima, the character,” says Naduvil.
However, Currimbhoy’s choice of protagonist — Bhima, the third Pandava and often seen as a supporting character to Arjun and Yudhishtir — is curious. In fact, the other popular reference to him is Chhota Bheem, an animated cartoon character targeted at entertaining children. Naduvil says the choice is because Bhima is an underdog. “He is steadfast, dedicated and the mightiest of all Pandavas, but he always comes second. His personality is rarely discussed,” he says.
The experimental play also attempts to shed light on the versatility of katahakali as a dance form. Naduvil says, “The make-up and costumes used in kathakali mask the individual actor, and focus only on the character — a theme that runs parallel to the story of the play.”
Be there: The Dumb Dancer will be staged on January 6, at 7pm
Where: Prithvi Theatre, Janki Kutir, Juhu
Call: 2614 9546