Kartik Nach: The Show Must Go On

Features Issue 74 Jul, 2010
Text by Rishi Amatya

It’s nearly midnight, but Ram Krishna Tamrakar is not sleeping, nor is Hari Man Shrestha.Unlike the scores of people who have just turned up to watch the final dramatic dance recital of the famous Kartik Nach, there is a lot of responsibility riding on their shoulders. Throughout the whole evening, people from all walks of life gather to watch the dance (nach). The performance will stretch way past the normal bed time, but the audience is prepared for that. As popular as it is, this nach is performed only once annually, in the month of Karti (October/November), and from the looks of it some of the audience have come early to reserve good seats.

Hari Man Shrestha looks around. Surely many people have gathered to watch the climax of the dance show, he thinks. He and the actors have planned and practiced hard for this, but anxiety is still there. It’s time to begin. He looks intently at the ancient palace of Patan, which now serves as a renowned museum. The palace’s golden window, closed most of the year, is flung open on this night, legend says, to honor Siddhi Narsingh Malla, the Newari king who initiated the Kartik Nach three centuries ago. As the golden window flies open, the audience roars with excitement.

All eyes now go to a box-like contraption that has been placed near the stage. If you were to consult an architect, he’d tell you that in the plan of a house it represents a pillar. On stage, Ram Krishna Tamrakar is waiting for his cue. When everything is ready, Shrestha gives a hand gesture and Tamrakar, along with his fellow musicians, give life to their instruments. Along with the chants and music, Narsingh emerges from inside the ‘pillar’ tearing it away to bits, and in a brilliant dash enters the dabali (the stage) amid thunderous applause and cheering from the crowd, as if to say: “Finally, it has begun!” 

A brilliant cadenza
As the chill of the autumn deepens and signals the arrival of winter, the ancient courtyards of Patan begin warming up for the event that will end the cultural calendar of the city on a high note. Just like a great musical score, Kartik Nach provides a brilliant cadenza to the festival landscape of Patan.

“The legendary Kartik Nach,” says Hari Man Shrestha, Director of the Kartik Nach Management Committee, “is one of the most intricate dance performances in the valley.” Shrestha has been managing the program for decades. He started as a dancer at age 8, and is now the leading expert in the cultural and historical aspects of the dance.

“Kartik Nach is the legacy of our traditions,” he says. “It is the finest, one of the most ancient, artistically sophisticated and incomparable dance recitals of the valley.” The exact reasons behind the initial creation of the dance has, sadly, been lost to time. In its place, considerable lore and stories have been handed down through the generations to fill the void. Judging by the looks of it, all of them are deeply marinated in the legends of yore and richly flavored by the time-honored myths of the land.   

Chasing legends
Nepal’s history has an uncanny ability to turn simple stories into beautiful
legends. The Kartik Nach, as an event, was first established by the devout King Siddhi Narsingh Malla in the 17th century, during the Malla Era (10th to 18th century AD). The Malla Era is often considered to be the Golden Age of Nepal. A great deal is attributed to Siddhi Narsingh’s reign. Besides the week long dance recital, the renowned Kartik Nach, he also transformed Patan into one of the most beautiful cityscapes in the valley. His most famous addition to the city was the famous Krishna Mandir, an iconic monument and popular postcard image. 

It’s been three centuries since the initiation of Kartik Nach, and historians and legend-watchers are still divided on the reasons why. Along the way, a number of stories have been added to the legend of the dance festival, reflecting Siddhi Narsingh Malla’s love of the gods, arts and literature, and most importantly of theater.      

One general account tells that Malla started the event in honor the god Kartikeya. This makes sense, as the dance festival is held each Kartik, a month that is closely associated with the deity. But, Shrestha tell us, “There’s another reason as well.” 

Legends of the fall: A dramatist king, a wrathful God and wise Gurus
Siddhi Narsingh Malla’s devotion to the gods, especially Vishnu and his various incarnations, is legendary. It is reflected, quite remarkably so, in the temples that populate Patan Durbar Square, the ancient seat of the Malla kings. The most famous is the Krishna Mandir, which still awes visitors and devotees alike.

It’s easy to label Malla as a devout king, and leave it there, for legend has largely ignored another interesting aspect of the king’s personality. Siddhi Narsingh Malla is said to have been an adept playwright who wrote many plays and dance recitals during his lifetime. Almost all of them were deeply immersed in the religious colors of his faith in Vishnu, but the finest among them is the Kartik Nach.     

“During the reign of Siddhi Narsingh Malla,” says Shrestha, relating the legend, “a great misfortune befell on the land. It was as if the city had lost its luster. No amount of pujas and yagyas seemed to restore the original splendor of the city. Crestfallen, the king consulted with his learned gurus. They advised him to invoke Narsingh, the ferocious, wrathful and blood thirsty incarnation of Vishnu, to help him solve the problem. But there was a catch—invoking Narsingh to his aid demanded a hefty price—narbali, the ritual sacrifice of a man, which had to be performed annually, without fail.” 

“Malla was skeptical. Surely, no one would gladly put their life on the line, not even for the gods. His learned gurus, Haribansha Rajopdhayay and Bishwanath Rajopdhayay, suggested an alternative way, one that would avert disaster and, most importantly, without spilling any innocent blood. They would invoke the gods through Tantrik means, with strong incantations and spells, a form of symbolic narbali, in name only.”

Faced with uncertainty and yet, with a possible solution to the crisis, a brilliant idea struck him. Why not stage a play that would serve two purposes? The play would symbolically offer the gods their desired narbali, and as long as the audience played along, it would be a good education for them as well. He wrote the complete play on this revelation. The theme revolves around Narsingh, the wrathful god, who was called forth to divert the disaster. It is based on Narsigh’s exploits as described on Vishnu Puran, a most appropriate holy sourcebook, as it focuses on describing the various incarnations of Lord Vishnu. The last day’s performance is testimonial to it.

The final day: Duel between Narsingh and the demon lord
The final day’s performance begins on a high note. Various performances during the week now culminate in a final showdown between the wrathful Narsingh and the demon lord Hiranyakashipu. Quite a few spectators come to witness the finest of all the dance performances, on that last night. It begins late, and carries on well after dark.      

Before the final showdown can begin, however, priests (the descendents of Haribansha Rajopdhayay and Bishwanath Rajopdhayay) invoke the deities through Tantrik means in a chamber deep within Patan’s Degutalle Taleju temple. The whole process and the place where these rites are held are out of bounds for non-initiates. On the dabali platform, outside, preparations are already underway. Huge torches are lit on all the four sides of the platform. The effect is magnificent, a perfect stage for the performance. Among the theatrical aspects of the drama, there is a strong belief that shadows of the dancers impersonating the god and demon should not touch one another. Thus, throughout the whole performance, flaming torches are maintained on all four sides of the production.

Amid the throbbing music and the excited cries of the crowd that has
gathered to watch the finale, Ram Krishna Tamrakar and his fellow musicians begin their performance. To the blaring music, Narsingh tears away from the ‘pillar’ and takes refuge on center stage. His hands, one pointed up in the air and another pointed determinedly towards the ground, add drama to the ferocious mask he is wearing. He moves about the stage like an eagle swooping down on its prey.

His movements, although steeped on the rasa that denotes anger, are very graceful, enough to mesmerize the spectators. The ancient seat of the Mallas’ once again comes alive with the actors’ intricate movements, the throbbing music and the dramatic dance. All of this creates, on this one night, a spectacular and enchanting experience.

The dramatic climax comes as Narsingh closes in on Hiranyakashipu who, all the while, has dodged the attempt on his life by the god. Finally, Narsingh forces Hiranyakashipu into a corner; then, something miraculous and incredible happens—the instant that Narsingh touches him, the dancer impersonating Hiranyakashipu loses consciousness and collapses to the ground. This represents the symbolic narbali sacrifice that the priests devised and the king so brilliantly turned into the greatest Newari cultural performance of all time. As the religious texts tell us, Narsingh forces the demon lord to his knees, squatting all the while on the threshold. While doing that, he’s neither completely inside nor outside, he’s in the middle. He’s neither completely human nor completely animal, he’s both. He’s fulfilling the conditions required to be able to kill the demon lord who was favored by Lord Brahma, the Creator.

He cannot be killed either in the day nor in the night, nor by animal or man, neither inside nor outside, nor by any weapon. Narsingh is obliged to abide by these rather complex rules, and does so in such a way that he is not totally animal nor totally man, he’s both; and he kills the demon lord neither in the daytime nor in the night, but at dusk; and he doesn’t used any weapon, for with claws as sharp as a lion’s who needs a weapon? And, finally, he is on the threshold—neither completely in nor completely out. Simply ingenious.             

The fainted dancer is ‘removed’ from the stage under a white cloth covering him from head to toe, like the shroud over a corpse. Further down on the chowk behind the stage, he is revived by sprinkling water taken from the Mangal hiti water spout, and is purified by Tantik means. The Mangal hiti is one of the most famous landmarks in Patan Darbar Square, and gives Mangal bazaar its name.           

A very lengthy way to save the country, don’t you think? But, justified all the while. Not only was the king able to avert impending doom in his country, he also managed to leave a legacy for the residents to marvel upon for times to come. Legend tells us that after the dance-drama and the symbolic narbali the country regained its lost splendor. 

Now and then

Three centuries on, the Kartik Nach retains its original grandeur and majesty. Most of the ancient ways are still aithfully and painstakingly followed every year
before the start of the performance. The gods are invoked in the same way it was traditionally done, the plays’ structure has not changed from the days when Siddhi Narsingh Malla wrote it, and the message it delivers is the same now as it was then, after all these years.

The main focus of the play is evident: good eventually triumphs over evil. But more than that, it teaches the general populace about an ethical and religious way of life. It makes good sense to stage the Kartik Nach where masses of people can view and learn from it. The dance-drama is also full of didactic messages, comical and satirical pieces that are introduced during the transition between major acts to break the monotony. And, although they are funny, they are also loaded with ethical and spiritual meaning.

Through the Kartik Nach the devout king’s drama repertoires introduced
aspects that are now familiar in modern Nepali theater. It is evident when two people come with a curtain, for instance, a scene change or a new act is about to be introduced. The whole performance is also divided into various aspects and includes various rasas, or moods, to keep the gathered crowd entertained.

Kartik Nach today
Much water has passed down the Bagmati river to the Ganges since Siddhi Narasingh Malla’s time and a lot of changes have been incorporated into the dance recital. Over time, the duration of the show has been changed to correspond to reflect the times. After Siddhi Narsingh Malla, his son Sriniwas Malla extended the dances and added more days to the original performance. Under his son, Yog Narendra Malla, it was extended into a month-long show. Now, however, for various reasons, it is performed only for a week; but what a spectacular week it is!  

“Things have surely changed,” comments Ram Krishna Tamrakar. “Over the years, the insistence on using Sanskrit has lessened, and has been replaced by Nepal bhasa instead.” Shrestha agrees: “It makes sense to simplify. The whole idea behind the play is to make people understand. If people cannot understand what is being said, the whole of the play will certainly loose its charm.”

The dance recital has sure seen changing times, and most importantly under the able leadership of people like Shrestha and countless others, it has survived the harsh climb of history. In the face of the incentives they get, it’s surprising that they are giving their all to sustain it. Even despite the hardships, they all share the common passion that has kept Kartik Nach alive. Shrestha sums it up beautifully, “It’s our cultural identity, it’s who we are. And, we cannot forsake what makes us, can we?”