The Death of Bali – Part One

7 07 2008

Perhaps my earliest memory of ashaan’s(ashaan is how we address the master the malayalam, in this case Guru Ammannur) performance is that of Balivadham. I remember as a little girl being taken to a Bali vadham performance that went on and on into late night. I clearly remember saying to my mother “.. amma, wake me up when Bali starts to die..” and falling asleep. I also remember that she did wake me up to watch that scene.

In my mind, and in many others’ Bali is synonymous with Ammannur Madhava Chakyar. I am one of those who, blinded with admiration,  would declare that there had probably never been a greater Bali and will probably never be another one like him.

But I say this not merely out of emotion and nostalgia. It is a fact that the potrayal of Bali, specifically the death of Bali is certainly one of Guru Ammannur’s masterpieces.

I am taking the liberty to put an excerpt from my father’s(G.Venu) book – Production of a Play in Kutiyattam – which is based on Balivadham (Act one of Bhasa’s play Abhisheka Natakam).

This is from the foreword written by Ammannur himself:

“I have modified slightly the enactment of Bali’s death. I was emboldened to do this because of the training from Bhagavatar Kunjunni Thampuran of the Royal family of Kodungalloor. I went to Thampuran, who had done deep research in the art of drama, to learn the art strictly according to the principles laid down by Bharatha. I was his student for two years. He taught me also the minute details of climacteric breathing. This particular training took about forty days. The various svasas – the Kshudraka, Tamaka, Cchinna, Mahaan and Urdhvan – are controlled, one after another appropriately to make the death throes realistic. This is the essence of my modification”.

There are several interesting points in this quote that expalin exactly why Ammannur’s Bali was unique. One must note that Ammannur ashaan, after completing his basic training under his uncles in the traditional line, went to Bhagavathar Kunjunni Thampuran for a higher understanding and specialized training in abhinaya(the art of the actor,technique of ,acting) and Natyashastra(the great Indian Treatise Theatre ascribed to Sage Bharatha). Thampuran, a member of the Royal family of Kodungalloor was a great scholar and actors’ trainer. He had an actors’ laboratory in Kodungalloor where he gave specialzed training based on his research to few select performers . He inspired Ammannur to develop the technique of involving breath in abhinaya. They worked intensely on different scenes and particularly the death of Bali. The actual secrets of their collaborative work process was never revealed to another person.

Therefore, after this training Ammannur’s Bali became exclusive. He deviated from the traditional pattern(which was a very bold innovation in his time) and elaborated the death scene. I have strong memories of long death scenes that lasted up to 45 minutes.

After watching Balivadham in England in 1982(the performance presented was an edited version of the original play), Kenneth Rea wrote in ‘The Guardian’ –

“…Chakyar’s death scene in the play Balivadham was unforgettable. When he eased the arrow from his chest, some of the viscera came out too. It was a quiet, agonising death, like an animal fighting to stay alive, one of the bravest and most outrageous pieces of acting I have ever seen. Who else would take 15 minutes to die on stage and get away with it?”.

Will be continued with a photograph…