God’s own dance: Kathakali

For all its vibrancy and power-packed movements, Kathakali thrives as also being the world’s slowest traditional performing art. Contrary to a general notion that it stares at a bleak future, the Kerala dance-drama is sensing resurgence in the new age...

Think Kerala and fresh visuals from God’s Own Country suddenly dance before the eyes. If you have been to Kerala, you would know how the state casts a magical spell on its visitors. If you are still contemplating a visit to this land of myriad cultures and flavours, the promotional film by Kerala Tourism –‘Your Moment Is Waiting’ sums up why you must put Kerala on your itinerary. Apart from pristine green backwaters that overlook the placid lakes, Kerala is a perfect setting to rejuvenate and refresh your mind, body and spirit. The world-class ayurvedic centres in Kerala gives plenty of excuses to energise your senses with an exotic ayurvedic massages.

God’s Own Country, the name also strikes a scene complete with colours, demonic garbs, quivering facial muscles, painted faces and insistent beats of drums and cymbals, which welcome you to the world of Kathakali. The simplest way you can define Kathakali is that it is a classical dance-drama. An art that originated a little over four centuries ago in a sliver of south Indian land now called Kerala. Curiously, the exactness of this concept of ‘dance-drama’ becomes a bit tricky once you are exposed to this ethnic ballet. For, the quantum of the two ingredients varies from school to school, story to story, artiste to artiste.

Aesthetical dance-form

Not that Kathakali today has too many schools, stories or practitioners. By schools, one doesn’t mean a brick-and-mortar institution that teaches the art. Instead, a school — called chitta in Kerala’s Malayalam language — is a stream of thought. One that keeps evolving from updated ideas of its gurus, their class-room practices and the resultant conduct on the stage. In an age of globalization, present-day Kathakali broadly has three schools. Of, which Kalluvazhi, the style prevalent in central Kerala, is increasingly gaining currency so as to virtually eclipse the rest two: Kaplingadan (of the state’s south) and Kadathanadan (of north Malabar). If the history of this ballet tells us about the rise and slide of a dozen or so schools in the past, Kathakali today seems converging to a monolithic form that comes closest to Kalluvazhi in aesthetics.

So, what characterizes Kalluvazhi? Chiefly, it is the basic concept that the stylized mime language should be conveyed through the whole of the human body — and not just the face. In short, there is a stress on dance than on drama. (Again, not that facial emoting alone kindles dramatic scenes; but then Kathakali has a close correlation between the two.) Thus, economy of space employed to unveil the profile of a hand gesture (mudra), where an entire set of other muscles synchronizes to give it added effect is the bottom line of Kalluvazhi. There the theme of the story (which is anyway known) becomes rather secondary; instead its treatment gains prominence. That makes enjoying Kathakali at its abstract best: you may not follow the thematic content in its detail, yet you enjoy the show by the beauty of the fully-decked larger-than-life characters, their movements timing well with the background music and percussion.

Dramatic expressions

To realize the potential of this experience, Kathakali generally seeks to ensure that an overdose of dramatic elements does not blur the charm of its choreography — be it slow, medium-paced or fast. Thus, its story-plays (the popular among them totals around two dozen) speak more about the potential of body dynamics than about the tale of its characters — mostly from Hindu mythology. (Kathakali has over the past half-a-century been experimenting with themes from local folklore, contemporary Indian literature, Western theatre [primarily the plays of William Shakespeare] and the Bible, among others, but they have not yet managed to join the mainstream of this art.) The word ‘body dynamics’, nonetheless, does not mean that Kathakali lacks in subdued moments on the stage. It has scenes — mainly romance between couples — that are so restrained in movements (yet so forceful), that Kathakali has been acknowledged as the slowest performing art on earth. Another possibly misunderstanding about Kathakali even among Keralites is that love of Almighty (bhakti) is its predominant spirit. This, when most story-plays either revel in anti-heroes ridiculing gods or portray the varied layers love, separation and reunification to more mundane ones like flirting, gossip and jealousy, besides, of course, revenge.

So, what happens on the Kathakali stage? The big lamp occupying the centre of its front boundary is first lit from the flame that is brought from the greenroom. The percussionist — typically shirt-less and wearing the flowy mundu from waist downward — appears and plays the introductory knocks and taps on the horizontal maddalam drum before receding to the left half of the stage. Two greenroom assistants emerge to hold the multi-colour curtain cloth. The two singers behind it render the invocatory stanza (shlokam) — the leader (actually the anchor) carries a gong (chengila), while his partner plays the cymbal (ilathalam). Soon, you hear the introductory lines of the story-play of the evening or the night.

Thumping of drums

The characters ascend on to the stage, and come to full view once the curtain parts. Scenes progress with the dancers essaying the content of the music, also with audio prop from the relatively loud vertical drum called the chenda, beside the maddalam. Occasionally, when female characters enact, musical rolls from the small hour-glass shaped drum called idakka add to the effect. Quite a few stories start with a facade of placidity, which soon gives way to turmoil and heightens with the elimination of the villain. Overnight shows feature three stories: the romantic first, the anti-heroic second and the villain-centric third. It’s another matter that modern lifestyle has led to a spurt in three-hour shows, timed to end by dinner time back home. As for the looks, it doesn’t require expertise to tell the virtuous protagonist from villains of various shades.

True, the pasty facial paint, which is made of natural pigments powdered and mixed with coconut oil, helps the actor-dancer mask his age to a certain extent. But, in the case of certain exponents, it is their fit physique and mind that lend them youthfulness. When it comes to beating old age, contemporary Kathakali has two such masters: Kalamandalam Gopi (75) of the Kalluvazhi style and Madavoor Vasudevan Nair (82) of the down-state Kaplingadan school. In a way, the two mavens represent the evergreen nature of Kathakali in its entirety. For, the art form today senses the sprouting and blooming of quite a few promising youngsters.

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