Chat Purnima Menon is one of the rare women Kathakali dancers who says it took her years to understand the lyrics and the beauty behind this age-old classical art form

Kathakali was such a male dominated arena that even the female characters were enacted by them. But things have changed over the last few years. It has seen some women, who have braved all odds – vigorous training, long hours of make up, heavy costume and head gear – to carve a niche for themselves in this art form.

One such artiste is Purnima Menon. “I dreaded it when I was initiated into this form at the age of seven by my father, whose exposure to the classical arts of Kerala was immense. As we stayed close to the International Centre For Kathakali, in New Delhi, we started our training, despite my negative attitude towards it. Today I am so grateful to my father for helping me discover the beauty of Kathakali, which has all the elements of dance and theatre in it,” beams Purnima.

“The training is rigorous. It goes on and on for hours. Being more interested in games as a child, I would find myself making lame excuses to miss my classes,” she recalls, and adds: “Its also a myth that only men are into it. Chavara Paru Kutty was one of the earliest women to enter this art form and many have followed. Since I was too young to understand the art form, I wanted to just be done with my practise and run off to play. In fact I even discontinued my training in my teens,” says Purnima.

When she was 19, she watched her younger sister perform on stage and felt a “twinge of jealousy. I suddenly felt that she had matured as an artiste and was depicting intricate movements and characters. Suddenly there was this strong urge to go back to the form,” says Purnima about her second innings.

She gives all the credit to her new teacher – Evoor Rajendran Pillai. “He was extremely patient and would enact every character over and over again just so that I could imbibe the correct gestures and emotions. It was his patience that encouraged me and I was suddenly enamoured by Kathakali and started spending hours practising it as I understood the lyrics and the background of the character,” explains Purnima.

She adds that her guru is also one of the few men, who encourages women to learn Kathakali. “He, in fact, challenges us by making us perform rigorous male roles. I started with the role of Bheema. It was received well and thus began my journey on stage,” says Purnima who then went on to dance the roles of Hanuman, Putana, Sri Rama and Krishna.

“I think it’s because of my height that I get the lead roles, though I wouldn’t mind donning a negative character as it gives you an opportunity to growl. It is fun to growl on stage,” she laughs.

But there are challenges too. Putting on make up and costume takes three hours. “The costume and the make up simply sweep me off my feet. Just to get my chutti (the jaw piece) on takes one-and-a-half hours. It is always men who help us with the costumes, make up and head gear.”

Explaining the make up, Purnima says: “The good guys have their faces painted red, the villains from the royal family are depicted with the green and red paint, while the commoner villains sport red and black paint.”

Reminiscing about playing Hanuman, she says with a laugh: “I jumped off the stage and monkeyed around a bit with the audience.”

Purnima, manages four to five performances in Bangalore. “I generally work with travelling groups that would require short rehearsals.” “I am still a student. There is so much to learn. But in the future I would love to start a school for Kathakali . As an artiste when you perform, Kathakali is exhausting, but it is a complete art form with songs, theatre, percussion and music. Today I will choose Kathakali over anything else,” she says.

Purnima can be contacted on purnimamnon@yahoo.com.

SHILPA SEBASTIAN R.

Kathakali is exhausting, but it is a complete art form with songs, theatre, percussion and music. Today I will choose Kathakali over anything else

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