Kathakali green room with a new view

Kalamandalam Krishnakumar getting ready for a performance   | Photo Credit: Arun Menon

Before wearing his headgear, Kalamandalam Balasubramanian goes into a meditative mode . He prays in a sitting posture, hands reverently holding his kireedam, which the master will soon fix on his head,winding it with a coarse cloth. The two-minute ritual marks the actor’s exit from the green room and entry on to the stage.

“The prayer instils the belief that I’m now the character in toto,” says Balasubramanian, fresh from a performance last week. As the country slowly emerges out of the lockdown, a temple in south Kerala organised a Kathakali performance on Srikrishna Jayanti, which heralded the dance-drama’s return to its traditional platform after a gap of six months.

“Since March, the dance paraphernalia has been lying idle. Finally, the prospect of a recovery,” says Chingoli Purushothaman, who did the make-up for the September 10 presentation of Kuchelavritham at Evoor near Haripad.

About 25 km northeast of Evoor is Tiruvalla, where a 20th century drawing teacher’s experiment once rescued a night-long show from an unexpected shortage of make-up artistes. In the process, K.P. Ramakrishna Panikkar, the lone make-up man at the venue, altered forever the looks of the Kathakali performer. To hasten the long-drawn facial chutti work, he used white paper instead of thick rice paste for the raised border from the cheeks down to the chin. The role of the rice paste was reduced to a glue — lining the foundation to stick the paper. By the early 1940s, this innovation became the norm across Travancore.

Kalamandalam Balasubramanian

Kalamandalam Balasubramanian   | Photo Credit: Arun Menon

Novel chutti technique

This was the decade when Kathakali witnessed a revival with the emergence of Kalamandalam. “The institution invited Panikkar to train chutti students in the technique,” says make-up veteran Kalamandalam Ramamohanan. “The style found acceptance.”

Not to be left behind, north Malabar dancers too adopted the paper chutti. For instance, Mekkara Narayanan Nair (1929-2016) was initially trained to make rice paste chutti at Vengayil Kaliyogam, before leaving his native village Taliparamba for P.S.V. Natyasangham as a teenager. “Today, this Kathakali institution in Kottakkal off Malappuram has adopted all the contemporaneity associated with chutti, but it carries certain traces of Nair’s original Kadathanadan school,” says Kannur-based make-up artiste Parakandy Kunhikrishnan.

Facial painting is integral to Kathakali, but it forms just one part of the preparatory drill. If the natural powders, made into a paste with coconut oil, bear at least half-a-dozen hues, no less colourful are the accessories of the characters in the four-century-old dance form.

“Certain primordial elements remain even as ‘aharyaabhinaya’ in Kathakali has evolved with time,” says chutti artist Pallipuram Unnikrishnan, referring to the criticality of physical appearance in character portrayal. “We owe a lot to pre-classical Dravidian ritual arts such as Theyyam, Mudiyettu, Thiyyattu, Kalamezhuthu and even the ancient murals.”

Ramamohanan, 74, agrees, but believes Kathakali owes its looks primarily to Koodiyattam, the oldest extant Sanskrit theatre. “Maybe Kathakali initially imbibed all aspects of it and then went on to shed some features that continue to be in in vogue in Koodiyattam,” he says. “Another source is the pre-classical Krishnanattam ballet.”

To Ramamohanan, Kathakali’s much-refined Kalluvazhi style accorded importance to chutti only in the second half of the 19th century. That was when Kuyilthudi Ittirarisha Menon became the chief at Olapamanna mansion that patronised the arts in Vellinezhi, west of Palakkad. When his disciple Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon went on to become the guru at Kalamandalam, it then had an innovative chutti artiste, Kurungattil Ravunni Nair. “His pupil Othenath Govindan Nair further improvised to come up with a chutti training manual,” says Ramamohanan, hailing Vazhenkada Rama Warrier and his pupil Govinda Warrier.

In the early 1960s, at Ramamohan’s Vellinezhi village was a young carpenter, Kothavil Krishnan, who specialised in the woodwork of the Kathakali costume, which goes into the intricately carved headgear and ornaments. After Krishnan’s death in 1989, his son Ramankutty further enriched the craft and groomed his successors at Kalamandalam during his two-year tenure. Ramankutty died in 2018, but not before putting in place a production team comprising his two sons and many pupils.

Kalamandalam Gopi

Kalamandalam Gopi   | Photo Credit: Manoj Gopal

Elegant costumes

Much as the meykoppu ornaments for the torso and arms have gained more sheen over the decades, the Kathakali costume, especially the clothing worn from belly downwards, has become more elegant in the past 50 years. Not only has the uduthukettu gained an impressive size, the stiffly starched cloth inside, which created the puffed-up skirt, has been replaced with plastic-laced sacks that are much lighter for the dancer.

“It takes a lot of practice to ensure the uduthukettu is a perfect circle,” says nonagenarian Appunni Tharakan, one of the most renowned green room assistants today. “Equally important is to maintain these costume items over the seasons.”

South of Kochi, chutti artist Eroor Manoj, 38, points at the flipside of a broad uduthukettu. “Some masters need frills so wide that it requires some 60 sacks against the standard 40. And then you notice that the passage to the dais is narrow,” he says, quoting similar piquant instances from his uncle Eroor Surendran’s life as a green room assistant.

The turn of the 21st century saw the multifaceted Sadanam K. Harikumaran using fibre-glass for headgears. That, again, stemmed from an urgency. “In the year 2000, my troupe got an invitation at short notice for a Paris tour. I realised that synthetic material is much cheaper than a wooden kireedam that costs over Rs. 80,000.” Three years ago, Harikumaran also came up with an easy-to-wear uduthukettu arranged with nylon sheets above a circular thermocol frame around the waist. These days, even ready-to-fit chutti paper-cuttings aren’t unusual outside Kerala.

And, in another change, many women are now doing chutti. From Barbara Vijayakumar of Southampton and Deepali Sinha of Delhi to Kalanilayam Sujatha of Kottayam, the list is long.

In the Kathakali green room, it is the assistant who hands over the kireedam to the performer, signalling the start of the show. The subsequent invocation is, in a way, a salute to the backstage artists.

The writer is a keen follower of Kerala’s performing arts.

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Printable version | Nov 25, 2020 8:43:01 AM |

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