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As Depicted in Kathakali


Who is the Demoness Putana?

Many Indians view her with dread. She is a murderess - a hideous creature who has killed countless babies by suckling them with her poisoned breasts. Her evil actions were not without reason: King Kamsa of Mathura, fearful of a prophesy that predicted Krishna would be the cause of his death, ordered Putana, his sorceress assassin, to kill all newborn babies as Krishna's whereabouts were unknown. Putana, by the power of her black magic, transformed herself into a dazzlingly beautiful woman, and set out on her mission.

Without altering the storyline, Kathakali theater adds a complexity to this character that takes her to a different level. In Kathakali, Putana, though murderously cold-hearted by nature, has two transformations that unalterably change her. The first is a subtle shift that occurs when she encounters the captivating sights of Brindavan, the village where Krishna lives. As she takes in the serene beauty of the land, the feeling of wonder warms her cold heart ever so slightly. Then again, when she first sees Krishna, and her eyes lock with his, a feeling of motherly love wells up inside her. She loses herself in him, forgetting everything, and delights in his divine beauty. In this timeless moment, she enters a sublime space, one of pure love and adoration.

Out of this eternal moment, Putana is jolted back into the reality of who she is and the mission that brought her here. Crashing from these lofty heights, she is devastated by the horror of her existence. Yet, she realizes that if she does not kill Krishna, her death is certain at the hands of the King. Flashing between moments of fury and trepidation towards Kamsa, and moments of affection and outrage towards Krishna - for having stolen her heart, she is left writhing in a torrent of emotions. Unable to tolerate the inner turmoil, Putana falls into a catatonic state, wherein her heart steels itself to emotions, becomes cold again and the demonic in her re-surges. True to the original version, Putana does attempt to kill Krishna, but it is her remarkable journey through these myriad and intense human emotions, her struggle with them, and her tragic defeat, that elevates this Kathakali Putana to a high stature. Krishna kills her in the end, sucking out her very life breath through her own poisoned breasts. Putana, moments before her death, once again in her fearsome demonic form, has a vision of the divine, cosmic Krishna. Though she dies on the earth as a demon, her enormous body shaking the mountains as she falls, her spirit, now purified, reaches the highest heavens.



*Mandalam Performing Arts is a division of Elephanta, focusing on the touring of Indian arts