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Reviewed by:
  • Charudattam (Kathakali Julius Caesar)
  • Graeme Vanderstoel
Charudattam (Kathakali Julius Caesar). Adapted and composed by Sadanam Harikumaran. Sadanam Kathakali Academy, Kerala, India, 17 January 2010.

Since its premiere at the National Drama Festival in 2001, Sadanam Harikumaran’s kathakali adaptation of Julius Caesar, Charudattam has been performed over two dozen times, in and outside Kerala, but still to date not overseas. Harikumaran is unusual in the present-day world of kathakali: he is at once actor, vocalist, playwright, composer, and designer of new forms of makeup and costumes. He is also principal of the Sadanam Kathakali Academy, where his play was staged on 17 January 2010.

Harikumaran wrote six kathakali plays based on Indian epic puranas before turning to Shakespeare. “Why Julius Caesar?” I asked, to which he replied: “Most kathakali plays are man-woman love stories. I wanted to do a political play when the good and bad are not as obvious at the beginning as they usually are in kathakali.” Harikumaran named his adaptation Charudattam (Play of Charudatta, as he names Caesar). All the characters are given Indian names; however, for clarity I will here use those of Shakespeare. As author of a kathakali play, Harikumaran is composer of the text and music as well as choreographer and director. For the premiere, rather than acting, he was the lead vocalist so he “could manage the stage.” He has played the role of Brutus a number of times. At this performance Harikumaran had planned to perform Brutus, but the lead vocalist who knew the text was not available, so once again he was vocalist and another actor took the Brutus role.

All the characters in Charudattam except one are in standard kathakali [End Page 569] makeup. Sadanam Suresh as Julius Caesar and Sadanam Manikandham as Brutus were both pacca, noble “green” face roles. Harikumaran created the makeup for Cassius and variation of the headdress (Fig. 1). The new makeup has been the most controversial. Kathakali audiences are accustomed to standard roles, and any deviations usually draw criticism and concern. Certainly with the new makeup they are left wondering about the qualities of Cassius’s character: Is he good, bad, or otherwise? Some thought katti makeup used for those having a noble streak but with major faults, for example the demon-king Ravana, would have been more appropriate.

Julius Caesar is the one of the shortest Shakespeare plays at well under three hours. Nowadays kathakali performances are usually a few scenes from a longer play edited to about three to four hours in length. Shakespeare’s play has nineteen scenes; Harikumaran reduces that number by half. He reduced the number of characters from Shakespeare’s nineteen and dozens of supernumeraries to nine, more typical in a kathakali play. So, Brutus’s wife, Portia; Octavius’s first appearance; street scenes; ghosts; and omens (apart from Calpurnia’s dreams) were cut. Even then Charudattam lasted three hours and fifteen minutes. With so much omitted, why still so long?

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Figure 1.

Sadanam Narayan Namboodiri as Cassius in the new makeup Sadanam Harikumaran created for Charudattam, his adaption of Julius Caesar for kathakali. (Photo: Graeme Vanderstoel)

One of the glories of kathakali are the interpolations that allow actors to follow standard embellishments of the text or create their own, accompanied [End Page 570] by the drummers, with the vocalists playing only their handheld gong and cymbals. A few lines of text can become more than half an hour of improvisation by the actor. The aim is to convey the rasa (essence) of a character, and great actors are masters in doing so. Calpurnia’s dream scene is embellished when Caesar (Sadanam Suresh) declares his love in an extended sequence while she sleeps.

Sadanam Sreenath, who plays Calpurnia, only recently added this fine Shakespearean woman to his large repertoire of streevesham heroines (female roles performed by male actors). Calpurnia awakes in terror. Harikumaran’s text changes the dream, and Calpurnia in gesture-language follows this new text: “I dreamt of many serpents emerging from your garlands. I saw them biting you and ripping you apart. Your jeweled crown turns into a thorny headdress. The cleansing waters of...