The Death of Bali: A performance of Kudiyattam

by the Nepathya troupe from Moozhikkulam, Kerala, India

Notes by David Shulman

Kudiyattam (literally: “acting or playing together”) is the last surviving form of ancient Sanskrit drama in the world. It is a visually striking, aesthetically compelling classical art that has been performed for over a millennium in the temples of Kerala, the green, well-watered state on the southwestern coast of India where the musical language of Malayalam is spoken by some 30 million people. Each major Kerala temple had a stage for performance, the kuttambalam; the actors, drummers, and make-up artists, trained over decades of demanding practice, were sustained by the temple economy, and the plays themselves were offerings to the god who was also the prime spectator (and who often chose the plays he wished to see). In modern Kerala this link between the theater and the temple was attenuated, indeed in many cases severed entirely, and Kudiyattm performers now compete on the open market with other media, including secular theater and film. They feel their classical art is threatened with extinction unless new forms of patronage and support can be found.


Very ancient elements of Sanskrit drama can be seen in each Kudiyattam performance, including the alternation of verbal text, sung by the actors or their Nannyar accompanists, and expressive hand- and eye gestures, abhinaya, which constitute a language of their own. Sometimes eye movements, a highly developed skill of central importance to these performances, can offer a contrapuntal commentary on the sung text, extending its meaning or suggesting a non-literal reading of the words. Sometimes a performance includes long moments—an hour or more—when nothing moves on stage except the actor’s eyes.


By Western standards, Kudiyattam performances are long and slow:  they range from ten hours for the shortest play, Matta-vilasam, “The Drunkard’s Delight”, a highly ritualized text often performed in order to attain male offspring, to over 150 hours for the longest, Mantrankam, “Taking Counsel,” a monumental meditation on politics and the social order of medieval Kerala. Normally, each day a segment of some two to seven hours is performed; each such segment contributes an essential element to the emergent whole. Today, full-scale performances like this have become rather rare; what one usually sees on the Kudiyattam stage is a compressed two-or-three-hour version of one of the great masterpieces. But for those who can follow the intricate language of gesture and the classical texts, even full-scale performances seem anything but long; each moment on stage is packed with action, complex suggestion, and dense meaning. Cultivated spectators, the prekshaka, are expected to be able to decipher and enjoy the subtleties and extraordinary power of this art.


The traditional repertoire of Kudiyattam plays comprises, for the most part, Sanskrit texts composed in Kerala in the medieval period and intended for performance in the Kudiyattam style. Tonight we will be seeing Bali-vadham, “The Death of Bali,” which is the first act of a play known as the Abhisheka-natakam or “Coronation”, attributed to an early Sanskrit poet named Bhasa but in all likelihood composed in Kerala by the Chakyar performers of Kudiyattam. Like all Kudiyattam performances, this single act extracted from a longer play is reworked into a typical non-linear structure that builds up to a powerful climax, with its own internal logic and rationale. “The Death of Bali” is normally performed over some six nights; we will be seeing tonight a condensed, modular version that takes us through the main events and leads up to the tragic denoument.


 “Coronation” is a play about the epic hero Rama, the god-man whose life on earth is first described in the Sanskrit Ramayana epic (composed in the last centuries B.C.). “The Death of Bali” deals with one of the most painful episodes in the Rama story. Rama is wandering in the wilderness together with his brother, Laksmana, after Rama’s wife, Sita, has been kidnapped by the alluring ten-headed demon king of Lanka, Ravana; the brothers are searching for her desperately. When they arrive in the monkeys’ kingdom of Kishkindha, they meet Hanuman, minister and adviser to Sugriva, former king of the monkeys, who has been driven from the throne by his brother, Bali (who has also taken Sugriva’s wife, Tara). Rama and Sugriva become friends and allies, and Rama – after first revealing his prowess by shooting an arrow through seven sal trees– promises Sugriva that he will kill Bali and restore his new friend to the throne. Sugriva challenges his brother to a fight, and Bali gladly accepts, despite Tara’s pleas to him not to go to battle. In the course of the struggle, Rama, hidden behind a tree, shoots Bali and wounds him mortally.


Generations of commentators have struggled to make sense of this episode, in which Rama, the very embodiment of proper action and ideal values, betrays the warrior’s code of fighting fairly and openly and instead ambushes his foe. Bali himself, slowly dying, demands an explanation from the god who has unjustly slain him; his words are perhaps the most trenchant articulation of the problem of evil in the Hindu tradition. We will observe how the Kudiyattam version of the story handles this moment, as Rama stands, at first mostly impassive, before the dying monkey.

As in all Kudiyattam performances, “The Death of Bali” includes embedded episodes drawn from the vast reservoir of Hindu mythology and mentioned, or at least hinted at, in the Sanskrit text of the play. Thus when Tara attempts to dissuade Bali from going to fight his brother, Bali arrogantly says: “Even if Indra, king of the gods, or Lord Shiva or Vishnu himself with his lotus-like eyes were to oppose me, they couldn’t defeat me!” Rama is, indeed, an incarnation of Vishnu. The actor expands on the phrase from the verse (“Vishnu with his lotus eyes”) to show us, through precise gestures, the avatar of Vishnu as a fierce Man-Lion, Narasimha. Each segment of text, each hint or reference to another episode or story, can be elaborated in this fashion, sometimes over hours of performance. Similarly, a single verse describes how Bali appeared at the time the gods and demons were churning the ocean of milk and took over the exhausting task himself; the actor will show us, in gesture and mime, this entire episode before Bali returns to his conversation with his wife.


The Sanskrit verses of “Coronation” will be recited—or better, sung— by the actor or the Nannyar in a strangely stylized fashion, somewhat reminiscent of the mode of reciting the sacred Vedic texts. Each time a verse is uttered on stage, it is also enacted, sometimes at considerable length, by the actor in his abhinaya gestures, which materialize an inner vision fueled by memory or imagination in the open, empty space of the stage. The audience capable of entering into that visionary reality has an active role to play in the performance:  one possible meaning of the name “Kudiyattam” is precisely this, the “playing together” of performers and spectators. But the term may also refer to the powerful presence of the mizhavu drums, in remarkable synchronization with the actors; the drummers are capable of an astonishing expressive range, framing, punctuating, intensifying, and deepening what the actor is performing at any given moment. One should also note the necessary presence of the three-wick flame in center stage; some performers claim that they are acting only for this divine fire, the true witness and mirror to their art.

There are many ways to watch a Kudiyattam performance. Tonight the audience will have English subtitles on screen to enable them to “read” the language of gestures. The plot, summarized above, is given in advance; the focus is on the careful crafting of the acting, the lyricism and nuance of movement, and the rich interplay of words, drumming, and gesture. To enter into the performance, one might do well to let go of strenuous intellection and the continuous effort of decoding the language of gestures. A gently hovering awareness, receptive to sight and sound but perhaps not overly focused or tense, may be the secret to the experience of deep pleasure, and of new modes of understanding, that this ancient art offers its audience.