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In Kathmandu Valley, the Malla Era (A.D. 1200-1769) was a period of great accomplishments in art, architecture, and culture. Besides the creation of many beautiful monuments, dance and drama, too, received a tremendous boost, and, dabalis (raised platforms for public performance of dance and drama) became the norm in many courtyards and squares around the valley. The contributions of King Pratap Malla (A.D. 1641-1674) were especially great, and his patronage of dance and drama was above the ordinary. In fact, legend has it that the king once had a dream about an epic battle between three goddesses and hordes of terrifying demons. It was such a wonderful dream that he wanted to share it with everybody. So, he ordered that his dream be enacted through a dance/drama performance which could be performed year after year for one and all. Thus was born the Mahakali dance, which enacts the tale of the goddesses Mahakali, Mahalaxmi, and Kumari and their valiant battle with demons. This famous dance is performed during the week-long Indrajatra festival in Kathmandu Durbar Square.

However, before Pratap Malla’s time, King Siddinarsingh Malla of Lalitpur (Patan) was an ardent patron of the arts as well, as were all the Malla rulers of the era. In A.D. 1641, he began the tradition of holding an annual dance/drama that would last eight days in the month of Kartik (Oct/Nov). Religious in nature, the Kartik Naach (Kartik Dance) would portray, through dance, the story of Narsimha (an incarnation of Lord Vishnu) as described in the Vishnu Puran. In 1723, his son King Sriniwas Malla added a week to the eight-day-dance by including comic portrayals titled ’Batha’ (‘Clever Man’) describing the antics of three cunning brothers, Gu daju, Sama daju, and Batha kija, with the last being the cleverest one of all. ‘Batha’ depicted the social realities of the times and had moral overtones.  

Later still, Sriniwas’s son, King Yognarendra Malla, extended the days further so that now the Kartik Naach went on for the whole month of Kartik, except for three days of Tihar (one of the biggest festivals of Nepal, which also falls in Kartik). How was the extension made possible? Well, following his father’s lead, he, too, added a couple of new dramas, and these were pretty lengthy love classics. The month-long schedule was followed right till 1949, but from 1950, with drastic changes in the political system, it became just a two-day affair. However, in 1982, it again reverted to its original period, that is, eight days. Currently, efforts are being made to extend it to a month-long program, and this year, it is being held for 12 days (Oct 26-Nov 6). Certainly, this historic dance has a tremendous history, even if it’s a bit convoluted!

In the first chapter of the Kartik Naach, ‘Bhakti Surdas’, dancers enact the story of Surdas, the blind devotee of Lord Krishna, who gets blessed with sight, but fails the test of continued devotion by falling for an attractive maiden called Mohini. Finally, coming to his senses, he returns the gift of sight because he realizes that it is not needed to remain fervent in his commitment to the Lord.   

The second chapter, ‘Sudama’, tells the story Lord Krishna’s childhood friend Sudama, who, after growing up, remains poor, while his friend moves into a palace. In desperation, one day, Sudama’s wife Sushila asks him to request his powerful friend’s help in getting out of their poverty. Reluctantly, at her insistent request, he goes to the palace and offers Krishna some chipped rice as a gift, which the latter eats with relish. When Sudama returns home, he finds that his hut has been transformed into a mansion, with many riches inside.

Following these chapters, the dancers enact various comic stories of the three cunning brothers (‘Bathas’): namely, ‘The Unfaithful Wife’, ‘Price of a Goat’,  ‘Tricking the Brahmin’, ‘Selling the Earrings’, ‘Unfortunate Bathas’, ‘The Greatest Fool’, and ‘Crossing the River’  They are all folksy in nature and with a moral message at their end. And, of course, they are pretty funny. For instance, in the first story, the three brothers are forced to look for shelter one evening when on a journey. They enter the house of a man called Lanake, and pretending to be his relatives, manage to stay the night. The next day, when Lanake is in the fields, they espy a man called Matin kaji entering the house and dallying with their host’s wife, Punavati. Unfortunately for her, Lanake returns sooner than usual, and she rolls her lover in a carpet. And then follows a series of comic antics of the three brothers, who finally succeed in unraveling his wife’s unfaithfulness to Lanake.   

One would think that these funny episodes are an interlude to the main story, which is that of utmost religious sentiment. But, hold on, there’s some love stories next (added by King Yognarendra): the first is ‘Madhavanal’, which relates the classic love story of Madhavanal and Kamukundala written by a renowned Indian poet, Gopal Kayestha. The second is titled ‘Usha Haran’, portraying the love story of Usha, granddaughter of King Bali, and Anirudra, grandson of Lord Krishna. Now, after the interlude of comic and love stories, its back to the original dance as devised during King Siddhinarsingh’s time: ‘Jala Sayan’ first, then ‘Varah Avatar’, and finally, ‘Narasimha Avatar’.

One thing to be noted is that the final three chapters of Kartik Naach must be performed on three specified days of the lunar calendar, that is, Ekadashi, Duadashi, and Triyadashi (three very auspicious days in Kartik). Incidentally, the first of these three days is the only time when the doors of the famous Char Narayan Temple in front of the royal palace are opened for devotees, of which you’ll see quite a large number queuing up to pay their respects. The dabali in front of it is known as the Kartik Dabali, and this is where the Kartik Naach is performed every night from 7:00 p.m. onwards for about three or four hours.

Anyway, coming back to the dances, all the three mentioned above are about Lord Vishnu’s wiliness in battles with demons who had been granted immortality by the gods themselves, namely, he himself and Lord Brahma. ‘Jala Sayan’ depicts the story of his victory, with the help of Maha Maya (a goddess with amazing powers), over two powerful antagonists, Madhu and Kaithba. ‘Varah Avatar’, similarly, is about how he vanquishes another powerful demon, Hiranyaksha, son of Hiranyakshyapa, by taking on the form of a wild boar (varah), since that animal had not been among those mentioned as not having any powers to harm the villain.

‘Narasimha Avatar’ is about how Hiranyakshapa, angered at Vishnu’s killing of his son, goes into such deep meditation seeking Lord Brahma’s favor, that the god is compelled to grant him his wish: that he cannot be killed by man or animal; in the day or at night; in heaven or on earth; and neither by any weapon or other instruments. Ironically, his other son, Prahlad, is an ardent devotee of Lord Vishnu, and he makes many attempts to have him killed. Finally, Lord Vishnu comes up with a solution to do away with the demonic king. He takes on the form of Narasimha (who is half man and half lion), and one day, at the exact time of sunset, accosts Hiranyakshapa under a doorway of his palace, puts him on his lap, and rips his entrails out with his claw-like nails. Well, you’ll surly agree that it’s as rousing an ending to an epic performance as one could imagine!

Actually, there are three more chapters left: the ‘Vastra Haran Lila’, the ‘Dadhi Lila’, and the ‘Bouddha Lila’. The first two are to do with the romantic flirtations of Lord Krishna, first with his admirers, the ‘Gopinis’, and the next with his lover, Radha, while ‘Bouddha Lila’ recounts Lord Buddha’s appeal to his followers to refrain from animal sacrifice. Finally, all that’s left to say is that it is up to the skills of the dancers to do justice to so fantastic a dance/drama as Kartik Naach, and in this, one can say that the 70 or so dancers who take part are well versed in the art, since they have been doing this for ages. While most branches of the Newar community can be performers, the Chitrakars are the one who usually perform the part of the deities, while Narasimha is generally the prerogative of Rajopadhyas.

And, yes, there’s one more interesting thing that must be disclosed here: on the night of the ‘Narasimha Avatar’ dance, the golden window of the palace facing the dabali has to be kept open. Why? Well, that’s because King Siddhinarsingh Malla himself, the founder of the Kartik Naach, will be watching from that window—should surely put more spirit into the dancers’ performances!