Can Kathaprasangam have a new lease of life in Kerala’s cultural landscape? Television, which had killed the beauty of this performing art, has ironically revived 'modern' forms of this story telling to cash in on the growing demand from viewers who have a craving for the nostalgic past. Though the smartphone wielding new generation found Kathaprasangam curious as well as funny at once, most of the older generation of viewers couldn’t bear the mere mimicking of the stalwarts of this genre by the ill-prepared and overenthusiastic reality show participants.
As far as Kathaprasangam was concerned, the benchmark had already been set by the evergreen story teller, late V. Sambasivan. Anything in the name of Kathaprasangam before and after Sambasivan was judged and duly rejected or only partially accepted by Malayalees. It won’t be fallacious to say that Sambasivan was not only the champion but also the enemy of Kathaprasangam, for none could match his oratory skills, ideological adherence to the working class (who constituted his audience initially) and his dexterity in transcending socio-political criticism within the realm of his art. He could critique religion from the premises of temples and do the same to politics in the den of political opponents.
After a long lull, it seems that Kathaprasangam is being revived thanks to the efforts of artistes like Niranam Rajan. Incorporating not only story-telling and singing, but also visuals from popular television and film narratives projected on a white screen, he has made this dying art form a bit captivating. Rajan calls it 'Visual Kathaprasangam' and the success is already shown in his highly circulated program itinerary in the social media. Having been 'booked' back to back in most of the temples and other social festivals, Rajan evokes the old charm of Sambasivan's storytelling while embellishing his narrative structures with new audio-visual technology.
The longevity of this new genre of 'Visual Kathaprasangam' cannot be predicted at this stage because this is neither an entirely novel art form nor an extension of the real Kathaprasangam. This is a hybrid, which in fact, had predecessors even when the doyens like Kedamangalam Sadanandan and Sambasivan were still active. During late 1970s and early 1980s, an artiste called A.K. Raju travelled all over Kerala and elsewhere with his highly mutated dramatic form, which was neither drama nor a ballet in the conventional sense. What made these theatre works interesting, and to certain extent mysterious, was Raju’s ability to stand before a mike against a plain backdrop (exactly the way Rajan does these days), narrate a story, and at a particular juncture, simply disappear and reappear in a different guise and attire to continue the dramatic part that he had been narrating.
Raju was also not too original; he had the Kalanilayam Natakavedi that presented mystical and horror dramas through the then multi-media support as a model. Seithan Joseph, in his Aleppy Theatres, experimented with audio-visual techniques by bringing cars and ships on stage. This history of visual experiments on stage was last seen in Ayilam Unnikrishnan's (another master Kathaprasangam artiste) play, Kanyakumariyil Oru Kadangadha.
Rajan's 'Visual Kathaprasangam' carries the traits of these previous experiments. However, when we historically analyze the very medium of Kathaprasangam, it had certain affiliations with the Patuas and Bhopas in the northern parts of India and the Kavads in the western parts of our country. Patuas, mostly seen in Bihar and West Bengal, are the travelling story tellers. Their story telling techniques involve a long scroll of narrative paintings done in sequence as in a film's story board or a graphic novel. Before an enthusiastic nightly gathering, the Patua slowly opens a scroll and starts telling the story that is depicted there; each frame is accentuated with a lamp shown to it. That means, oration is supported by a visual element, which is further enhanced by the lantern. The story could be a familiar Ramayana narrative or a more recent incidents like Indira Gandhi’s assassination or 9/11 in New York.
Bhopas do the same, but while they open their scrolls, they sing the stories with an accompaniment of a string instrument. In the case of Kavads, the story tellers bring along a shelf like portable structure and open each compartment or segment to show the visual while narrating it. All these traditional story tellers base their narratives on two things; the familiarity with the story being narrated and the oratorical skills of the narrator. Pictures are a supplement to their aesthetical curiosity. Rajan also works on the same premises because his stories are from the popular myths (which assure the structural familiarity) and the visuals added or projected are from popular televisions serials like Ramayana or Mahabharata (which ensure aesthetical familiarity).
Kathaprasangam in itself is a composite art form. Though story telling before a larger audience seems to be something developed along the Bhakti traditions in India, in Kerala’s particular context, it should be seen as a variant of the same, but mostly employed to inform the uninitiated and illiterate (like the soldiers as Kunchan Nambiar puts it) and also to critique the authorities. This license to criticize the authorities has somehow percolated through many layers of centuries, and we see it in the liberal context within which both Sambasivan and the contemporary mimicry artists lampooned the authorities. From Koothu, Padhakam and Thullal, these story telling methods evolved and got more secularized in Harikatha (other religions like Christianity adopted it in Chavittunatakam) and then in Kathaprasangam.
The very idea of mixing poetry and prose for narrative effect is almost generic in the early theatre and the films that evolved from drama companies. When Changampuzha Krishnapillai wrote his pastoral elegy, Ramanan in 1936, he anchored the narrative in a theatrical way. One could even see that the popularity of Ramanan rests on its prose-poetry style (interspersed with commentary and real action, which is almost the same in Kathaprasangam.) One wouldn’t be surprised to know that the most famous Kathaprasangam ever is ‘Ramanan’ by Kedamangalam Sadanandan, the father of Modern Kathaprasangam.