As I roam around the alleys of Patan, I see a certain buzz in the people. Everyone seems to be in a rush. I stop and ask a little boy why he and everyone are hurrying. He replies, “Katti-Pyakha”. Started by then King of Patan, Siddhinarsingh Malla in the 17th century, Katti-Pyakha or Kartik Naach of Lalitpur is a traditional dance performed in the month Kartik (October-November) at Dobal of Patan Durbar Square.
I hurry along with the crowd and quickly get to Patan Durbar Square, where there are hundreds gathered to witness the most important day of the dance in which Vishnu’s Narsingha avatar defeats the devil Hiranyakashipu.
How it started
Kartik Naach was started by the king because there was a time when Patan was the least dazzling state in the valley. Back then, the kings were deep into art and architecture and they would compete with each other regarding artistic excellence. This was the prime reason why we have some interesting and unique structures all around the valley.
Kartik Naach started when Siddhinarsingh Malla’s gurus told him that there was a dosh (bad omen) surrounding the state and told him that they had to get rid of that dosh for Patan to prosper. When the king asked how that could be done, they told him they had to perform a narabali, which means sacrificing a human being.
The king could not just sacrifice anybody because he knew that would be objected to by the general public; which is why they devised another plan. As the king was a faithful devotee of Lord Vishnu, they planned to organise a play/dance where the main character of the Narsingha avatar defeats the evil Hiranyakashipu, and since then this dance has been going on.
How it’s changing
Most parts of this play/dance are believed to be written by Siddhinarsingh Malla himself and small changes have been made since its inception. Siddhinarsingh Malla started this tradition with an eight-day performance based on the story of Vishnu.
With the need to educate the people of the state, Siddhinarsingh Malla’s son Shreeniwas Malla added seven more days to Kartik Naach, during which they planned to show a satiric play that would both entertain and educate the people.
Two more plays, Ushaharan (five days) and Madhavanal (seven days) were later added by his son Yog Narendra Malla and up until 1950/51, the whole procession of Kartik dance would be done in the entire month of Kartik, minus the three days of Tihar (total 27 days in general).
An old man tells me that the actor playing the character of Hiranyakashipu used to fall ill or pass away almost every year. “Even today, the guy who plays that role feels nauseated after being slayed by the Narsingha Avatar,” says Kiran Chitrakar, the chairman of the Kartik Naach Preservation Committee (KNPC).
After the establishment of democracy in 1951, the dance used to be done only for two days and used to be so for the next 31 years. But, after KNPC was established, the dance is being performed for eight days every year after the prominent personalities of Patan decided not to let their tradition die out and vowed to preserve this unique dance.
Need for preservation and promotion
Until a decade ago, only parts of the dance were shown. But, the KNPC decided that it needed to show the entire dance so people could understand them. Hari Man Shrestha, a former director of the KNPC, has written a book on Kartik Naach and has documentation of all the dances. “This book has helped us a lot to teach the younger generation,” says Chitrakar.
The Alliance for Eco-Tourism along with the United States Embassy in Kathmandu helped set up the dance in 2014. During the year, the whole celebration was videotaped. They along with the KNPC managed the actors along with the costumes and the accessories needed to host this 12-day festival.
“We are thankful to the US Embassy for funding that project. We did not have proper documents to help us and they have done a great job as we can now show videos of the dance to people interested to learn,” adds Chitrakar. He tells me that it was never done before, leaving me wondering why Nepalis have not documented their festivals in the past.
Things like these help Nepal preserve its culture as Nepal can show it to its younger generation as they are the ones who will be taking this forward. Chitrakar tells me that they hence include everyone during the Kartik Naach festival.
“We do not discriminate against anyone as people from all walks of life are allowed to participate in the dance. Most of our dancers and characters are teenagers, who–apart from having interest–love their local culture and festival. This is why this is still surviving. If we had only thought of financial benefits, Kartik Naach would not have survived.”
Every day there is a different topic which makes this dance interesting and what I observed is that every sub-group from the Newar community takes part as there is a feeling that this is a community dance where no one is left out. This festival involves musicians, dancers, actors and organisers who have inherited their parts from their ancestors. It is also a public performance where the whole town gets together.
After watching the play for nearly an hour, everyone rises to watch the demon Hiranyakashipu defeated by the Narsingha Avatar. As he is defeated, everyone is in a joyous mood as they know the evil has been defeated for another year.
Originally published in 2017