Krishnanattam – Dancing the Lord's Lila Pastimes, Part 3



Jan 09, 2014 — CANADA (SUN) — The last in a serial presentation of Krishnanattam dance, a traditional glorification of Sri Krsna's inconceivable pastimes.

In parts one and two of this series, we briefly summarized the history of Krishnanattam, one of many devotional art forms to manifest during the Vaisnava renaissance following Lord Caitanya's Appearance, and we touched upon the basic characters, masks and props used in the performance. We finish today with a few comments on the tableaux and stage devices that frame the artists, along with an outline of the Kaliyamardanam drama.

As described by A. Harindranath and A. Purushothaman in their Introduction to Krishnanattam, there are a number of beautiful tableaux that establish the backdrop scenery for these Krsna lila plays. At the start of the Banayuddham play, for example, a hand-held curtain is lowered halfway to reveal a three-level tableau. Garuda is present with green face, red beak and wings, on the ground level. Above him, on the middle level is Satyabhama, her green face bordered with chutti. On the upper level is Krsna, holding a conch. Alavattoms are held at the back of Krsna's head. The spectacular scene being depicted is that of Krsna and Satyabhama riding on Garuda as they travel to Pragjyotishapura, the city of Narakasura.

Another beautiful scene in Banayuddham is Kailasa, where Krsna goes to meet Shiva. The hand-held curtain is removed upon the scene of Shiva, Parvati, Subrahmanya and Ganapathi, who two of Shiva's small bhutas sitting on the floor.

In the Swargarohanam play there are two breathtaking scenes of Vaikuntha. In the first, Krsna and Arjuna visit Vaikuntha together. Vishnu stands with a seven-headed Anantasesa canopied over Him, along with Sri Devi, Bhumi Devi, Lord Shiva, Lord Brahma, and Narada.


In the last scene of Swargarohanam, Vishnu reclines on Ananta while the others stand alongside. Ganesha and Garuda are also in this scene, along with Daruka, who sits to one side, with a parshada on the other. Singers and drummers sit on either side. Several lamps are lit in front, with burning incense that creates an ethereal mood.

The most famous dance composition of Krishnanattam is the Mullappoo Chuttal, the adorning garland of Jasmine. The scene is performed in Avataram by Krsna, Balarama, Yasoda and Rohini and the gopis, as well as in the Rasakrida play, with Krsna and the gopis. Another of the most preeminent dances is Kutti Etuttu Attam, a dance in which baby Krsna is held. It is performed twice in Avataram, before and after Putanamoksham. Another is the Kuvalayapidam dance in Kamsavadham.

One of the most important stage devices employed in Krishnanattam is the Thirassila, or half-curtain. As a stage mechanism, it is an integral part of the Krishnanattam performance because it is used to represent Sri Krsna's divinity.

Thirassila has specific and subtle functions that are deeply symbolic. In the Avataram play, when the demigods praise Krsna while He is still in Devaki's womb, the stage hands hold the curtain at a low level, hiding the actors' legs, thus making them manifest figures. Religious tradition holds that the demigods, even when they reveal themselves, do not touch the earth with their feet.

In Kaliyamardanam, the curtain is held at a lower level behind Krsna, suggesting the representation of the water surface, and facilitating the occasional introduction of Kaliya naga. In the scene where Krishna steals the Gopis' clothes, the curtain is held at a lower level to suggest that the Gopis are standing in water up to their waist. Thirassila is similarly used to create an impressive tableaux for Kamsa, Sankhachuda, Murasura and Narakasura.

In Swargarohanam, there is the scene of Balarama's departure for the heavenly planets. The curtain is held halfway to suggest two distinct spaces, earth and heaven. When Jara the hunter approaches Krsna, the curtain is held full to divide the stage in two parts. The front side depicts the forest where Jara wanders, and the backside is where Sri Krsna sits under a tree. After Jara shoots his arrow, hitting Krsna's beautiful toes, which project beneath the curtain, Thirassila is then lowered to reveal the Lord in a sitting posture.

To give the reader a sense of the flow of content presented in a Krishnanattam performance, following is an outline of the elements depicted in the Kaliyamardanam play, along with pictures of the actors (purappadu): Nandagopa, Upanandan, Krsna and Balarama.


Scene 1 : The Gopas shift from Ambadi to Vrindavan
Play at Vrindavan
Scene 2 : Krsna and Bakasura
Bakasura comes in the guise of a Baka and tries to eat Krsna, but Krsna is too hot to swallow
Scene 3 : Krsna and Bakasura
Krsna kills Bakasura
Scene 4 : Krsna
Krsna plays with the beak of Bakasura
Scene 5 : Krsna and Brahma
Brahma praises Krsna
Scene 6 : Krsna jumps to Kalindi
Kaliya attacks Krsna, and the Gopas come to watch the fight
Scene 7 : Kaliyamardanam Dance
Scene 8 : Wives of Kaliya praise Krsna
Scene 9 : Krsna and the Gopis
Krsna steals the dresses of the Gopis while they frolick in the river, then returns them
Scene 10 : Nandagopa and Krsna
Krsna advises Nandagopa that they should worship Govardhana Hill instead of Indra
Scene 11 : Krsna, Nandagopa and the Gopas
Lifting of Govardhana Hill

End of Kaliyamardanam

Upananda, Balarama and Krsna

Bakasura and Krsna

Brahma and Krsna

Wives of Kaliya approaching Krsna

Wives of Kaliya with Krsna


Pictures courtesy of A. Harindranath, Guruvayur Temple


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