The strand of gold that embellishes the narrative of Anita Nair’s latest offering “Mistress” is the tale of Koman, the Kathakali artist, while the darker skeins pattern the drudgery of his niece Radha’s marriage and her sexual escapades. The story unfolds on the banks of the River Nila, where Shyam runs a resort catering to tourists while his indifferent wife Radha begins an affair with an American travel writer Chris who comes to interview Koman. Anita Nair, draws on the techniques of Kathakali and uses it to tell this story in many voices while attempting to decode the language of Kathakali- “the language without sounds.”
Kathakali is an exacting art form and Koman the veshakaran(artist), is drawn into its vortex wherein even his real emotions are used to fuel the emotions of the numerous characters that he plays. The gruelling years of learning and the higher understanding of the art form perfects the artist but it also takes a lot out of Koman. To quote the text, “Slowly over the next eight years, I discovered the different aspects of being a wearer of guises. To match gesture and expression, to perform intricate footwork, to be both nimble and vigorous, to enact emotion without words, to add layers of interpretation to a single phrase, to raise myself from a performer to a character.” Slowly the art and the artist merge into a single entity for without the vesham there is no place for a Kathakali artist.
The novel dwells on the dilemma Koman faces as he remains steadfast to an art that rules him while around him Kathakali gets diluted and is sold as a tourist attraction and success is defined by money and awards. But Koman cannot compromise.
Anita Nair has eloquently detailed the navarasas, the tools that fashion the language of Kathakali: love, contempt, sorrow, fury, courage, fear, disgust, wonder, peace. “Mistress” gives a splendid insight into the complex world of Kathakali –in a scene in Nalacharitam, Damayanti uses thirty- three expressions to depict just the pain of loss alone. And “these emotions do not include sorrow, for sorrow is an absolute and the sense of loss fleeting.”
If only Nair had choreographed the smaller characters too, like the fisherman or the carpenter, the novel would have been much more interesting.
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All three of your novels “The Better Man”, “Ladies Coupe” and “Mistress” have dealt with different subjects.
Anita Nair: Yes. I write primarily for myself. I try different subjects otherwise it becomes formulaic and it will bore me. Even as I write I zone into the subject and enjoy researching on the minutiae.
Why did you choose Kathakali as the theme of your latest novel?
Anita Nair: When I was working for an advertisement firm in Bangalore, a Kathakali artist came to the office and did some mudras while the office staff giggled. It was a gimmick by some media firm. I began to wonder how anyone who had done years of study to master this art form could do something so degrading. So I began to read up and enrolled as a short- term student at Kalamandalam for a couple of months. It was an intense experience and at that time I had no idea how this art form was going to be woven into a novel or what form it was going to play.
Kathakali is perhaps one art form that requires the artist to apply his mind and it allows you to be yourself. It is usually played by the upper castes, who are familiar with the puranas and they give a mental and emotional dimension to the dance activity. It comes from one’s own understanding, within the frame of a puranic story the artist gives his interpretation. There would have been a more vigorous interpretation if the other castes too were involved.
The Nalacharitam is never taught technically because the artist has to understand and present it after watching other performances. I did not want to do a coffee table book on Kathakali and I wanted to tell a story about this wonderful art form that would perhaps interest ten people.
Was this novel written for the Western readers?
Anita Nair: No. I wrote it for the Indian readers and I always get my books first published in India before it is published outside.
But the book is sprinkled liberally with the F word. Your previous novels did not have that.
Anita Nair: In Mistress the characters are younger and contemporary and there is a certain naturalness to the word when these characters use it.
In “The Better Man”, Kerala appears fresher and more appealing but in “Mistress” Kerala has changed much. Do you see drastic changes in Kerala?
Anita Nair: I come thrice a year to Kerala from Bangalore and I am constantly observing from the sidelines. It is frightening how much Kerala is changing and everything is being geared for tourism. From the element of nature, the cuisine is made more palatable and even the noble art is diluted and made more accessible for the tourists. I begin to wonder where you see the real Kerala.
You have come down very harshly on dance critics in Mistress.
Anita Nair: Kathakali does not need virulent critics. I feel whatever a critic does not understand is misconstrued. If one should criticize then one should have a sound sense of what one is criticizing. It is the same for literary critics.
(First published by The New Indian Express. Some changes have been made.)