Interview ‘Kalamandalam’ Kesavan Namboothiri is positive about Kathakali gaining ground outside India. RANEE KUMAR

You enter the premises of Rail Kalarang asking for the chief performer of the day — Kalamandalam Kesavan Namboothiri, you are directed into a small room strewn with a palette of herbal colours, costumes fit for a mythological drama, head gear and one or two artistes donning their make-up. Now where on earth do we find our famous Namboothiri in this melee? Suddenly, a genial, robust, middle-aged man with his eyes enhanced by khol looks up and throws a smile across, beckoning you to come closer for a chat. You take a step hesitatingly and he completes the animated suspension for you by introducing himself in chaste Malayalam as the one you are seeking! We instantly strike a rapport and settle down for a tete-a-tete.

Whatever may be the market value (in today’s parlance) of Kathakali, Kesavan feels that it is a ‘complete art form’ like none else in as much as it comprises music — both song and instrumental — painting, dance, drama, etc. “On the surface of it, Kathakali can be likened to the Yakshaganam with minor regional variations. Both forms are loosely termed as ‘bylaata’, meaning a dance played in open area. Both call for an ornate costume code and facial paints to make the characters look larger than life. Both draw their plots from mythology. Both have rural/folk tradition incorporated into them, plus or minus classical dance status. But the comparison can draw to a close here,” he outlines the genesis of Kathakali, a distinct art form of Kerala.

Are Namboothiri families into Kathakali? “Not really. For instance, my family hails from Calicut (Kozhikode) and we are into priestly duties. Generally in olden times, Namboothiris were patrons of this form of art. I had this penchant for learning only Kathakali and hence, after great persuasion my father allowed me to enrol at Kalamandalam as a student with a government stipend. That was in 1972. It is a regular course with theory and practicals and an exam to beat,” he says with a wink. His ‘arangetram’ was at the institution itself after an intense learning of 12 long years. “The intricacies of this art form are difficult to master. It is learnt with experience and with the guru’s guidance of course. Apart from the masks which characters other than human being, don, gesticulation (hand and fingers) is an intrinsic mode of conveying a message or conversation. We have 24 gestures which substitute even prepositions and conjunctions without a word being uttered! The rest of the expression is done with the eye ball. The heavy paint and mask we need to wear is a hindrance to mobility of countenance. Hence, the grammar and syntax of this dance form is vital to our performance. We don’t need a rehearsal. The artistes are drawn from different dance schools and yet they can converse with each other and enact their roles, meeting one another for the first time! All through gesticulations. We cull out stories from mainly three epics, of which there are 150. But only 45 get to be staged since they are popular and suitable to the present times,” that is Kathakali for you in a nutshell.

The huge garments and hairdo hanging around the place catches your eye and when you look questioningly at him, Kesavan beams, “all these costumes are supplied by me to my troupe. The make-up begins six hours prior to the performance. It is laborious and as you can see, heavy to the core. The exaggerated make-up speaks for the art form that was originally staged in the open air with oil lamps to light up the artistes’ presence and the eye expression had to be visible to a long distance to the audience that usually gathered at the venue. Another reason was the portrayal of characters — generally gods and demons who ought to make a different impression on human beings.”

A very interesting feature is the music which is not an offshoot of Carnatic classical music but a very native ‘Sopanam sangeetham’ (temple music) that was drawn from Samaveda. The compositions are in Manipravala style (admixture of Sanskrit and Malayalam). The artistes are well-versed in it though in the present day, the influence of Carnatic music is creeping in here and there. Kesavan Namboothiri is happy that Kathakali is gaining ground not only in India but also in places like Dubai where a large community of Malayalees reside. “There is always a silver lining,” he says with a twinkle in his eye that speaks volumes.

(Review of the performance on pg2)