Krishnanattam – Dancing the Lord's Lila Pastimes, Part 2


Krsna and Balarama in Kamsavadham

Jan 08, 2014 — CANADA (SUN) — A serial presentation of Krishnanattam dance, a traditional glorification of Sri Krsna's inconceivable pastimes.

Continuing today with excerpts from the overview of Krishnanattam by A. Harindranath and A. Purushothaman, we hear more about the social and religious culture within which the Krishnanattam tradition of dance performance emerged. The development of Krishnanattam was one of many devotional art forms that emerged during the great Vaisnava renaissance that occurred following the Appearance of Lord Caitanya Mahaprabhu, as further described below.

The art of Krishnanattam can be divided into four historical eras: the time of the Zamorins, the period of transition, the time at Guruvayur Temple, and most recently under the current management of A.C.G. Raja. The art was known to exist at least as early as 1694, and by 1780 dance was included in the performance.

Krishnanattam's Founding Author - Manavedan

Manavedan, born in 1585 A.D., gained a place of prominence among the Sanskrit poets of Kerala. He was educated in Poetics, Grammar and Logics by Anayatt Krishna Pisharoti, and went on to compose two important texts: Purva Bharatha Campu (1644) and Krishnagiti (1654).

During the time Manavedan was composing the Purva Bharatha Campu, his uncle Sakthan Manavikraman was the Zamorin King. Upon the death of his uncle's successor, Manavedan himself became the Zamorin King. At this point in time the King of Cochin was planning to attack Zamorin. Manavedan prepared for that war, but didn't live to engage in the battle. He left his body at Trichur in February 1658.

While composing the Purva Bharatha Campu, Manavedan followed the model of another work that depicted pastimes from the Mahabharata, beginning with the story of King Pandu, and ending with the reign of King Yudhishtira. Manavedan dealt with the Mahabharata stories from the beginning, up to the birth of Dhritarashtra, Pandu and Vidura.

Krishnanattam paraphernalia

In his Krishnagiti, which forms the basis for Krishnanattam performances, Manavedan modeled his work after Jayadeva's Gita Govindam, Sukumara's Srikrishnavilasam, and similar works.

Indian Cultural Background

During the overall period in which Manavedan wrote his Krishnagiti, in the late 16th to early 17th centuries, Vaisnavism was experiencing a great renaissance, which was being expressed through many devotional art forms across India. The renaissance began with the glorious Appearance of Sri Krsna Caitanya in Navadvipa, Bengal in 1407 A.D., which surcharged all of Mother Bharat, and the whole earth planet with the Lord's glorious Presence.

Exhibiting great Vaisnava sentiment, the royal families of Mathura, Nepal and Assam, like the Zamorins of Calicut, became great patrons of performing arts in the Vaisnava cult. Many new art forms and individual works were created. One Sanskrit poem, 'Krishna Lila Tarangini' by Sri Narayana Tirtha of Tamil Nadu, was popularly performed on Sri Krishnashtami (Janmastami) day. This dramatic performance was similar to Manavedan's Krishnanattam, and the two were created at around the same time.

Sankaradeva and Madhavadeva carried artistic expressions of Vaisnavism to Assam. Similar performances developed in Kerala. Achutappa Naikan, who ruled Thanchavoor during this period, brought expert Brahmin actors from Andhra Pradesh to Thanchavoor, where even today they perform the dance drama, Bhagavata Mela.

Raghunatha Naikan and Vijayaraghava Naikan sponsored the art of Bharatanatyam in Tamil Nadu. The Nawab of Golkonda, Abul Hasan Kutub Shah, donated an entire village to the Brahmin dancers of Kuchipudi. The Sultan of Bamini encouraged the performance of a Telugu dance drama, 'Sugriva Vijayam', and in Karnataka, 'Virataparva', the first Yakshagana play, was composed in 1564 A.D.

Being alive as an artist in the wake of Lord Caitanya's glorious Appearance, Manavedan's association with the Lord was in His form as Krsna of Vrindavan. It is said that Manavedan once asked the great sage Vilwamangalam Swamiyar to enable him to see Sri Krsna in person. Swamiyar facilitated this request, and Manavedan was able to see Krsna playing beneath an elanji tree. When Manavedan tried to embrace Him, however, the Lord disappeared, leaving behind a peacock feather in Manavedan's hand.

A deity of Sri Krsna was made using the wood of this elanji tree, and at this spot today stands the Kuttambalam (theater hall), on the southeast side of the sanctum sanctorum at Guruvayur Temple. At the advice of Vilwamangalam, Manavedan composed his Krishnagiti while sitting before this Deity. The peacock feather was incorporated into the Lord's head gear, which was found to suit the heads of all actors performing the role of Krsna. The actors were said to get 'possessed' on wearing this headgear, which was unfortunately destroyed during an invasion by Dutch forces. A replacement version of the headgear also perished in a fire at the Zamorin Palace in 1766.

The fire of 1766 at Zamorin was caused by the attacking Haider, who burned himself and the fort palace at Calicut. All the wooden ornaments, crowns and masks used for Krishnanattam performances were also destroyed in that fire.

Today, a bronze deity of Sri Krsna is found at the Zamorin Temple of Tali in Calicut. The crown, ear ornaments and decorations, such as circular and floral patterns on the breast plate and hurdle of the Deity, resemble those worn by the actor representing Sri Krsna in contemporary Krishnanattam performances. But instead of the actor wearing a similar skirt with side panels and long, mirrored shawl, today he wears a simple dhoti.

Narada and Vasudeva in Kamsavadham

At one point during this period, a Krishnanattam troupe was performing at Tripunithura. The King of Cochin had ordered the troupe to play Kamsavadham, and an elephant was brought to the stage to enact the role of Kuvalayapeedam. But the actor performing as Krsna that night killed the elephant, then tried to attack the King. The King managed to escape unhurt but after that incident, Krishnanattam was never again performed South of Guruvayur.


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