There are some artists who mesmerise on stage through their performance, and then there are some who play the role of the opposite sex with such ease that it leaves the audience speechless. I am talking about one such superbly talented artist who portrays both Purusha Vesham (male form) and Stree Vesham (female form) with such effortlessness that as an audience one would wonder who the real artist would be a male or a female?
I am saying this because this is what exactly happened to me recently when I saw Prabal Gupta perform at NCPA in Mumbai. Prabal Gupta is the most sought after Performer, Choreographer, a Research Scholar and a prominent name in the world of Kathakali. He is a disciple of the Central Sangeet Natak Academy Awardee and the legendary Kathakali Exponent and Research Scholar – Guru Sri Sadanam Balakrishnan. Prabal is so amazingly mesmerising and such a versatile Kathakali Dancer that he can portray both Purusha and Stree Vesham with simplicity and when he takes the stree roop, as a viewer you will never get to know that the real performer is a male artist, that how close and perfect Prabal Gupta gets.
Initially Prabal was trained under Kalamandalam Govindan Kutty and later under Guru Sri Padmanabhan, but he is one artist who believes that dance is a lifelong learning process and inspite of being a world renowned dancer he continues to learn under the legendary Guru Natyacharya Sri Sadanam Balakrishnanji.
At NCPA, Prabal presented a very interesting and unique show ‘Manasa Chitram” this was an exceptional presentation of a Bengali folk tale on the tribal Goddess Manasa in Kathakali and paintings inspired from the traditional Patachitra paintings of Bengal. Here Prabal portrayed the folktale as told in the oral traditions of medieval Bengal while singing as a Pata gaan. The story described conflict between a Shiva devotee Chand Sadagar and the tribal Goddess Manasa and her struggle to attain the status of a divinity. Manasa, the goddess of Snakes, is worshipped across religions in Bengal, mainly for the prevention and cure of snakebites.
It was so refreshing to see rare and lesser known stories such as of Goddess Manasa coming alive on stage not just through dance but even through songs and painting. I must admit that Art in its holistic way was on display at NCPA and we all need to say a big thank you to Swapnakolpa Dasgupta an accomplished Odissi dancer herself and head of dance Programming at NCPA Mumbai for doing this.
After this fascinating show, I got the chance to talk to Prabal and asked him why he chose an unusual and uncommon subject like snakes and not pick up easy topics like Krishan Radha, Ram Sita, etc. To which the dynamic dancer replied ‘I was given the theme – Animals by NCPA and I chose Snakes because it is not at all easy to pivot a production on the said animal as it is rarely attempted in dance and here comes the challenge for me as a dancer. I always like to do something matchless and I do not cherish my own work unless it is tough and challenging, thus my tryst began with snakes and Manasa Mangal – a folklore from Bengal and Assam came along.’
For any artist their upbringing and learning days do affect their creative thought process and for Prabal who was born and brought up in Bengal choosing a Bengali tale was but natural. But what was more beautiful is that he chose to use the extraordinary exceptional tale. To make his performance more interesting he had English subtitles with Sanskrit lyrics which made people decipher the complex Kathakali mudras and the concomitant Kalasams (the pure nritta passages) that he used in the choreography.
As per the folk tale, Devi Manasa is the snake goddess; hence, to start the katha he performed stuti propitiating the Snake goddess as a prelude of “Manasa Mangal”. He translated the entire Kavya written in Bengali to English and then got the same translated into Sanskrit by Sri Dr. Arudhabharati Swamyji and to make the dance drama more effective his teacher and mentor Guru Sri Sadanam Balakrishnanji added essence of his style of choreography.
To add further more twist to the production and to enhance its uniqueness Prabal did a jugalbandi with patachitra inspired painting on a canvas by Sri Manjunath Wali. Why this blend of painting and dance I asked, to which Prabal told me that ‘Goddess Manasa Mangal is still alive in Bengal through the patachitra i.e painting of Devi Manasa on earthen pots, so to keep it the way the Goddess is even today having the painting on stage was a very important part of the performance.’
It is not just this dance drama by Prabal Gupta which people applauded, but before this he has performed three other productions world over which have gained him acclaim. William Shakespeare’s ‘Lady Macbeth’ presented in New York and ‘Cleopatra – an adaptation of William Shakespeare’s Anthony’ and Cleopatra in Kathakali premiered in his celebration of 25 years of dancing career and the third being ‘When Parallels Meet” – a confluence of Odissi and Kathakali with a theme taken from The Mahabharata.
Prabal Gupta is one dynamic graded artist of Doordarshan whose diligence and perseverance for Kathakali has captured the attention of the dance critics and the connoisseurs of dance leading to establishing him as one of the finest exponent of this mesmerising and elaborate dance. His most sought after research article – “ The Art of Kathakali – Then and Now – A Comparative Analogy” which speaks about soloism in Kathakali and “The Biological Nomenclatures of Stree vesham and its Aesthetic transformation while performing Kathakali Stree vesham by a male” carried under eminent research scholar Padmashree Sunil Kothari are published in various research journals.
All I can say about this divine artist is the next time he is in your city or even in your neighboring city; don’t miss his performance for anything in the world, because he is one artist who will truly take your breath away with his extraordinary talent and knowledge in the field of Kathakali.
Sandip Soparrkar is a well known Latin and Ballroom dancer, a World Book of Records holder and a Bollywood choreographer who has been honoured with National Achievement Award and National Excellence Award by the Govt of India. He can be contacted on firstname.lastname@example.org