The name ‘Kathakali’ usually unfolds an imagery of vibrancy, opulence, flamboyant costume and expressive dance. But for me, it had always rekindled old memories of my school days when in one of the projects, we had to stick a chart on Classical Dance forms of India and I was captivated by the very colourful mask and costume of the Kathakali dancer. For as long as I remember, I had concluded that the dancers of Kathakali wore a mask for their performances until one fine evening in the bylanes of Cochin/Ernakulam, this myth was demystified.
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Kathakali – A Flamboyant Dance Form of India
India is a vibrant and rich land of varied cultures, art forms and languages. Thus, a traveller is bound to experience a variety of changes that are both interesting and inquisitive in a land where the landscape changes every few kilometres, especially if it is God’s Own Country -Kerala.
Apart from the culturally rich Fort Cochin that houses the oldest active Jewish Synagogue in the yesteryear colonies, the simple yet elaborate vegetarian food that is served with warmth, the ornated temples and churches, the slow boat rides along the canals of the backwaters and the ever-present rains that distinguishes the state of Kerala from its neighbouring states, what brings back fond memories of my trip to Cochin is the Kathakali dance performance that we witnessed a day after our trip to the backwaters of Kerala . The performance also made me read a lot about this dying art form that requires immediate revival.
While exploring Cochin and Ernakulum on foot, we had chanced upon the Cochin Cultural Centre in Ernakulam. When we were asked if we would like to attend the Make-up session 2 hours prior to the actual event, a sense of realization dawned on me that the process of demystification has indeed started. After all, Kathakali is all about the colourful costume, expressions and make-up!
All about Kathakali
Kathakali as a dance-drama is practised, performed and widely associated with God’s Own Country –Kerala in India. It has its origins in the 2000-year-old classical dance form of Kuttiyatam that used to be performed in temples. A picture of the same is below.
Kathakali makes use of nritya (dance) in combination with abhinaya (expressions) that forms the crux and the USP of this dance form. Most of the Classical Indian dance forms make ample use of the Navarasa and Kathakali is no different. Navarasa are the nine emotions that are emoted throughout the performance. A dance with no mask gives ample scope to express the emotions beautifully without words. This, combined with the mudras (gestures) form the basis of this colourful dance drama.
Natyashastra is the Sanskrit text on performing arts and it has put forth various aspects when it comes to drama and dance. Remember the six elements of Drama according to Aristotle? Well, the latter is something similar to the former. I have tried to describe the dance form of Kathakali under various elements as follows:
Both masculine and feminine characters in this dance form are performed by only men. The female character is known as Minukku.
Students of Kathakali undergo rigorous training that includes oil massages and separate exercises for eyes, lips, cheeks, mouth and neck. One of the special features of the training is – the teacher, holding to a bar, massages the student with his feet and toes, working gingelly oil into every joint and muscle. The process is painful, but it does create the required fitness and flexibility of the body that is required to execute the extremely demanding dance of Kathakali.
Abhinaya or expression is of prime importance as is nritya or dance and geetham or singing.
The colours used in the Kathakali makeup are eco-friendly, natural sans chemicals. They are either extracted from various stones, herbs or natural powders that are then mixed with water or coconut oil. This mixture is then ground into a fine paste and used for makeup. I was told that the actors place a small seed in each eye which helps in turning their eyes red. This is not painful but the redness supposedly lasts up to five to six hours and greatly enhances the facial expressions of the actors.
The eye-catching make-up is an elaborate process with many stages.
The first stage that we witnessed is the Theppu wherein the artist applies the basic paints on his face by himself without any help.
The second stage is the application of Chutti. The white makeup or Chutti is the very prominent white ridge that is built up from the chin to the cheeks on either side. It is the chutti that distinguish Kathakali from other dance forms. Originally, the application of chutti itself used to take many hours as a mixture of rice paste and lime was used to build the ridges. But, nowadays, only the base is made of the paste and the ridges are of paper. This chutti is applied by a Chuttikaaran(make-up man) onto the actor’s face.
We need to know that Kathakali make-up falls into five main classes:
- Kari and
Paccha (means green colour): This colour is painted on an actor’s face whose role is heroic, kingly and divine. They are also painted with large black markings around their eyes and eyebrows with the sacred mark of Vishnu on their foreheads and Vermilion/kumkum colour around their mouths. They wear a chutti without fail. A golden crown called the kesabharam kirita ( commonly referred to as kirita) adorns their head.
Katthi ( means knife): The paccha make-up and kirita are used for the character who is full of valour though evil and arrogant. The distinction is made from a protagonist’s character by the application of a red mark on each cheek that looks like an upturned moustache. These characters have white knobs on the tips of their noses and on their foreheads to show that they are evil.
Thaadi ( means beard): Chuvanna Thaadi (red beard), Vella Thaadi (white beard) and Karuttha Thaadi (black beard) are three different coloured artificial beards that cover just the neck of the characters. Chuvanna Thaadi is for vicious and wicked characters, whose faces are painted mainly black on the top half and red on the lower. Vella Thaadi is usually used to represent Hanuman, a divine being. His make-up suggests that of a monkey, with its complicated white, red and black face patterns. The hunters and the people of the forests are represented with the help of the Karuttha Thaadi.
Kari (means black): In this, the face is painted black, the costumes are in black and the head-gear is old styled. Thus, we can say that ‘Kari’ is an all-black costume. Characters portrayed in this costume are demonesses and evil beings of ‘paathala lok’ or the underworld.
Minukku ( means glitter or radiance): This class of make-up is used to represent women, messengers, sages and Brahmin characters. The colour used for make-up is orangish-yellow sans the chutti. Also, the costume is not elaborate.
The flamboyant Kathakali costume
Once the make-up is applied, the male characters except for the ones with Minukku, wear an elaborate 55 yards skirt before which they drape 20-30 pieces of short cloth to give an oval shape to the costume.
The skirt is diligently starched and pressed to make the frills look prominent and on top of this, a thick woollen jacket is draped. Though the costume looks a bit cumbersome, it actually provides the required space for leg movement owing to its volume and shape.
The headgear or kirita used by the Kathakali dancers are specially made from a type of softwood and cane.These are designed and carved intricately by the artisans belonging to a heritage village named Vellinezhi in Palakkad district. A full head gear ideally weighs around 400-450gms.
The elaborate costumes, bracelets and other accessories worn by the Kathakali artistes are also made by the artisans of Vellinezhi.
The stage is simple with no scenery as a backdrop. A large traditional lamp is lighted with two wicks at the front of the stage before the performance starts and the radiance from the lamp illuminates and compliments the colours on stage.
Traditionally, the music was provided by two drummers and two singers on either side of the stage. However, in modern times technology too plays a role! The singers recite the story of the play, verse by verse, in Sanskritized Malayalam and the actors interpret every word through their mudras and abhinaya. In this way, the whole story is narrated and displayed.
The Kathakali Performance
Kathakali elucidates the ideas and stories from Indian epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata and Puranas.Prior to the actual performance, we were given hand-outs with play details printed on it. Also, at the beginning of the play, the navarasas were enacted for the audience to grasp the nuances of this traditional dance form as the play progressed.
Kathakali is heralded by the beating of drums called Kelikottu accompanied by the sounds of the Chengila (gong). From a calm start to an emotional and fiery exchange of mudras and dance moves to an eclectic end, the performance that lasted for more than an hour was indeed an exhilarating experience.
The dancers put their heart and soul into the performance so much so that they lived and emoted the characters. It never looked superficial and this dedication is what makes these classical art forms a class apart and grounded in reality.
Finally, I not only got to know that Kathakali is performed without a mask but also learnt the intricacies and hard work that goes behind the scenes too. My kiddo too learnt these facts quite earlier in life than his mom !!
Parting words on Kathakali
In recent times, due to the advent of various entertainment avenues the cultural centres not just in Kerala but across India are seeing a rapid decline in people’s interest in Indian Classical art forms. If we as Indians take interest in reviving these art forms by encouraging our children to tag along for an evening of classical dance or dramas once in a while, these centres will not remain just a tourist attraction. The children too will learn about our rich tradition and culture, apart from life lessons on the importance of fitness, hard work, dedication and perseverance. The influx of spectators will surely encourage the authorities to provide varied and higher platforms for the performers that in turn will better their livelihood.
Read a foreign traveller’s account of the Kerala backwater trip on their blog
Do pay a visit to the cultural centres in Kerala when you travel there and watch this opulent and colourful dance form called Kathakali in action. If you have already been a spectator to this art form, feel free to share your thoughts with me. How did you like the performance? Did you at any point find it too lengthy and boring? I am putting forth this question because, I remember that though the majority of us in the audience loved the show and appreciated it without blinking our eyelids, there were some who found it too slow and uninteresting!
Do share your thoughts…….
P.S: All the photos used in this blog-post barring the ones with the ‘Image Source’ mentioned, have been clicked by me.
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