Nurturing the Kathakali body

Kalamandalam Balasubramanian administering uzhichil massage to one of his students   | Photo Credit: Kalamandalam

One of the major factors that sets Kathakali apart from other classical dance and theatre forms of India is the longevity of the artistic life of its performers. Kathakali artistes, who perform physically demanding roles at the age of 70 or 80 quite casually, credit their strength to the rigorous physical training they undergo as students, particularly, the traditional oil massage or uzhichil they are given in the kalari.

The tough training regimen, adapted from Kerala’s martial art form, Kalaripayattu, is meant to achieve meyyurappu, a catch-all phrase that means flexibility, balance, control and strength. The idea is to prepare the body to suit Kathakali’s movements. Yet another factor peculiar to Kathakali is the heavy costume weighing up to 12 kg, with the kireedam or the crown alone weighing between 2.5 kg to 3.5 kg, depending on the character. And then there are the 64 tight knots, from calf to forehead, that secure the various accessories.

Kalari routine

The strict Kalari routine starts early in the morning, around 3 a.m., when ghee is poured into the eyes and oil smeared all over the body before a student sits cross-legged on the floor for eye exercises and then does jumping and bending exercises. The session ends with the student lying on a mat with the guru or asan holding an overhead bar and massaging the entire body, except the face, with his feet.

Kathakali artistes, both young and veteran, vouch for the efficacy of the massage, despite it being a painful experience and sometimes even leading to the odd injury. The expertise in massage is handed down from guru to sishya, but Ayurveda physicians call this method unscientific.

Kalamandalam Balasubramanian, a 66-year-old Kathakali artiste, says the massage helps loosen the muscles and improve flexibility, but he believes the massage practised today is too severe. There is certainly a case for cutting down some exercises and toning down the massage, he says.

T.S. Madhavankutty, an Ayurvedic doctor and Kathakali scholar, agrees. He says oil massage is a genuine treatment in Ayurveda, which improves subcutaneous circulation, makes the skin glow, firms up the organs, and leads to greater joint flexibility. This can be applied in Kathakali training to help maintain energy levels and improve suppleness.

But the Kathakali massage has no scientific basis, says Dr. Madhavankutty. “It is not done by professionals, who have studied anatomy. It should be done with extreme care with right amount of pressure. Moreover, I don’t think such rigorous and painful massage is necessary at all for Kathakali,” he says. “After all, many yesteryear gurus and even the present ones do not have regular massages after their training period and still manage to perform well.”

Kalamandalam Balasubramanian

Kalamandalam Balasubramanian   | Photo Credit: Achuthan T. K.


The massage regimen

Balasubramanian, who at 66 is a popular choice for the lead role in action-packed stories such as ‘Ravanolbhavam’ or ‘Narakasuravadham’, which demand very energetic dance movements and long presence on stage without a break, says the massage regimen has become less intense over the years. For example, during his student days when the guru massaged the lower back with his feet, the knees would be raised by two small pillows called terika. Nowadays, only one pillow is used.

Pointing out that there have always been different styles of massage, he recalls how the late Kathakali actor Vellinezhi Nanu Nair used only one foot to massage, thus ensuring that his whole body weight didn’t fall on the student. He was following the practice of his father Koppan Nair, Kathakali artiste and masseur.

Kalamandalam Sibi Chakravarthy

Kalamandalam Sibi Chakravarthy   | Photo Credit: PHOTO: NISHA MENON CHEMBAKASSERY


But Kalamandalam Sibi Chakravarthy, a 29-year-old Kathakali artiste, firmly believes in the benefits of the uzhichil. “If you are going to be a professional Kathakali artiste, you need a natasareeram (body suitable for Kathakali), and the uzhichil regimen being practised today is a must.”

Sibi says the dance form makes demands on the body even when standing still on stage — the feet must rest on the outer rim and should not be placed flat, the artiste must bend slightly from the lower back, chin must be pressed down to the chest etc. “Traditional massage in the kalari for four months during the monsoon for six to eight years equips a performer to do all this. I know Ayurveda specialists do not approve of this method, but all I can say is that it has stood the test of time. Watch our senior asans performing on stage and that is proof enough.”

Maybe it is time to initiate a detailed study in this area. As Dr. Madhavankutty says, the current practice needs to be modified by looking into the pros and cons of Kathakali’s massage regimen.

The author, a retired journalist, writes on Kerala’s performing arts.

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Printable version | Oct 22, 2021 9:56:46 PM |

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