Kathakali C. P. Unnikrishnan in his pioneering thesis looks at the impact unscientific and painful exercises have on young learners.

The 300-year-old art form, Kathakali, is known for the extreme physical training of long durations that young trainees, boys from poor families, have to undergo. The regimen is supposed to shape the actors, who present larger-than-life portrayals on stage.

The question is, are some of these demanding and crude exercises essential for the actors’ body kinetics? The very first and pioneering thesis that both medically and academically look into the rationale and physiological impact on the trainees is C.P. Unnikrishnan’s ‘Body Kinetics and the Aesthetics of Kathakali – A Critical Study with Special Reference to Bharata’s Natyashastra.’

While at the macro level many of the Natyasastra statements apply to almost all the arts traditions, at the micro level there are significant differences. Kathakali practitioners came to know of Natyasastra theories for their histrionics when Pattikkamtoti Ravunni Menon (1880-1948) at 27, the first trainer of Kerala Kalamandalam, went to scholar Kotungallur Kunchunni Tampuran (1858-1926) to learn the intricacies of Natyasastra from the perspective of Kathakali’s natya.

Based on his lessons, Pattikkamtoti reformed Kathakali’s training system even though his primary focus was improvement of satwika abhinaya.

In 1955, Pattikkamtoti’s first disciple Thekkinkattil Ramunni Nair (1887-1963) came forward with Natyarachana, an appraisal of rasa and natya elements of Kathakali from the angle of Natyasastra. Nevertheless, it involved the physiological impact and risk of obtrude body conditioning exercises.

Observing the physical training of Kathakali with an eagle eye and from both the performance and academic point of view, some of the exercises – of late gradually being diluted - may appear primitively cruel to child trainees. The late Keezhpatam Kumaran Nair (1915–2007) told this writer that there were moments when he considered ending his life to escape the strenuous practice.

As young trainees, when they could not cope with the torturous training sessions and painful punishment, Keezhpatam’s mentor Pattikkamtoti and Kalluvazhi Ittiraricha Menon (1828–1903), who groomed the latter, attempted suicide.

A revelation

In this backdrop, the first ever thesis by C.P. Unnikrishnan, a retired biology teacher and a Kathakali actor, on the impact of unscientific physical training in Kathakali is a revelation to practising artists and scholars.

“During my Kathakali training (1974) under Kalamandalam Gopinath, he gave me a copy of Natyasastra. Being a postgraduate in human physiology, he wanted me to read it and check the body kinetic aspects. The first chapter, on the ‘Origin of Natya,’ showed the essential steps followed in material scientific methodology (observation, collection and analysis of data, etc.) I found the chapters 4 and 8 to 14, dealing with the movements of the human body, leading to suggested use in histrionic deliberations and while chapter 11 stresses on exercises ‘without strain,’ chapter 23 specifies that no unit of costume must be heavy or uncomfortable to the performer.

“When I underwent the foot massage under four different trainers, there was no uniformity. Since I knew human anatomy, I could judge that they were not sure of the ways through which they moved their feet. Pressure application in vital zones such as the lumbar region, hip and knee joints were too high. The exercises and their order did not match with the human anatomy and it’s functioning. I could not get a logically convincing answer to the question, ‘what precisely does such a system aim at in the process of moulding a Kathakali actor?’” reflects Unnikrishnan, when asked what prompted him to take up this study.

He adds, “Several of my friends who are Kathakali actors used to (they still do) complain of neck, hip and knee problems, which did not correspond to age-related wear and tear. While not discounting the impact of changing life-style, it is important that the contents of training including massage should be assessed to ensure that they are error-free; if not, corrections are to be made. Thus, if Natyasastra indicates the need to keep a healthy body and mind , that should be the ‘tool’ to analyse the ‘kinetics’ of Kathakali leading to its aesthetic outputs with the costumes on.”

While the folk art, Ramanattam, transformed as Kathakali through the contributions of Kottayam Tampuram (the prince of Kottayam province in present day Kannur district who probably lived between 1645-1716), the elementary source of external influence on him and his associate and Ramanattam exponent Vellat Chathu Panicker (around 1650-1725, considered as the foremost trainer of Kathakali) was Kalarippayattu, Theyyam and Koodiyattom. There is little historical record that Tampuran banked upon the prescriptions of Natyasastra. So the identical elements probably crept in through the influence of Koodiyattom at a macro level.

And interestingly, like the over 2000- year-old predecessor Koodiyattom, Kathakali too vehemently goes against Natyasastra.

In this setting, what is the remedy that this scholar-cum-performer of the art puts forward? Unnikrishnan explains, “The training units and their intensity in terms of duration and power applied must be reviewed, systematically restructured and individualised. The present histrionic output could be achieved by much lesser strain, but formulating the training more methodically. If so, a lot of time can be saved. Additionally, Kathakali can be an accountable optional subject in school and university courses, to widen the individual’s vision and also sustain the art by the application of its components.

“The actors, after their training period are not known to continue with the daily exercise regimes. Further, the kinetic demands on the stage, which varies with the types of characters being portrayed, are different from those done in the exercise sessions. All these point towards the lack of continuity and uniformity, which are absolutely against the basic principles of any exercise/body kinetics. Any organ that ceases to be used after prolonged exercise will undergo ‘disuse atrophy’ (diminishing efficiency due to lack of use).”

Foot massage

Kathakali training adapted several elements from Kalarippayattu, especially the foot massage known as ‘chavutti uzhichil.’ This involves the use of a specially prepared oil, ‘mukkoottu,’ and body conditioning exercises called ‘meyyarappu’ with essential modifications such as placing a small round ‘pillow’ made of hay or cloth below both the knees during the massage, which this writer had undergone twice for academic interest. Predominantly, Kathakali practitioners believe that the element of this massage is rooted in Ayurveda.

Ashtangahrudaya, the basic treatise on Ayurveda, explains the massage only in one sloka, which clearly states that it is prescribed only during hemantham (low atmospheric temperature) to reduce body fat. Unnikrishnan justifiably states that “the rude and crude methodology” in massage is not essential for Kathakali.

In that case, what about the rationale of Kathakali foot massage? “Take gymnastics for example. Kathakali artists do not exhibit half the flexibility shown by gymnasts, who do not undergo the type of massage under discussion. Massage should be a pleasing experience and not a torture. It could be done as indicated in the Ashtangahrudaya. The mukkoottu must be prepared for the individual; the warming up procedures must be specified for the individual – after assessing his anatomical, physiological and nutritional conditions. In short, the items in the training must focus on core strength, stamina and histrionic requirements.”

In the fifth chapter of the thesis, he suggests a module of exercises which anyone can learn and practise every day, “to a substantial extent to avoid injuries to various joints identified during the statistical analysis.

The whole session would be less than 35 minutes,” he underscores and adds, “the late Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair was the one with whom I spent nearly two hours to fill up the questionnaire. He questioned each question. Finally, he said, “If the stage requirements of Kathakali can be met with less strenuous and less time-consuming practices they must be utilised.”

If accepted and applied, the new methodology prescribed by C.P. Unnikrishnan based on the scientifics of human physiology and Natyasastra is going to vitalise the training system of Kathakali, with telling effect on the traditionalists and their belief, and a new insight for practitioners of other forms. The thesis in English has been recommended for awarding Ph.D from the Kerala Kalamandalam Deemed University.

(The writer is the Director, Centre for Kutiyattam, Sangeet Natak Akademi, New Delhi)

Reading the online version of the article, writer-researcher Pepita Seth had this to say to K. K. Gopalakrishnan:

“I found the story ‘enlightening and fascinating, if somewhat depressing as I suspect there will be a combination of the existing lethargy and resistance since so much re-orientating appears essential. I guess we all brought into the concept that old ways are the best and want to think of the ancient masters as all-knowing. But it also seems that Kathakali's training is not so old.

“Strangely, just recently I found myself wondering about this in association with Theyyam and while I think they do know a lot about the body, the situation is changing what with modern lifestyles and the concept of short-cuts that Theyyam is bringing - even as the old practitioners are fading away taking their knowledge with them. Young practitioners do not have in-depth knowledge.

“That is the major difference between so many of them and Lakshmanan, who increasingly appears as a giant since his knowledge is so extensive.

“I came across an interview with Unnikrishnan Peruvannan recently, where he made these observations: A major occupational hazard is the deterioration of the artist’s health. A Theyyam can last more than 12 or even 24 hours, during which he may not be able to take food or drink water, putting a strain on his body.

“During the season, he works continuously day and night for weeks together leading to a lot of pressure on him. Hypertension is a common phenomenon in Theyyam artists. The eye makeup affects the eyes of the performers. Many artists take to drinking to overcome the strain, which again has a detrimental effect on their health. Blood circulation gets affected due to the Theyyam frame being tied to different parts of the body. Arthritis is another common health issue. All these take a toll on the artists and they often burn out at an early age.

“Actually, from what I've seen it's not just the eye makeup that affects them (in fact it is the least damaging), it's that most colours are now synthetic, not only devoid of medicinal properties but dangerous. One performer I know burnt his whole chest because of store-bought makeup; skin complaints are fairly common. Then there is the business of knots that they tie, up to 120 on the head and around the waist, which is another problem.

“I have heard that a known performer suddenly became paralysed. Luckily an experienced performer present there knew what had happened and went under his costume and cut a particular knot (that was pressing a certain nerve) and instantly he was normal again.

“KK, I was there with you at your tharavad when Vishnumurthy froze and threw up and was unable to continue... perhaps if someone experienced had been present, he too would have become alright.”