Silpi Janardanan: The make-up person for Kathakali and Krishnanattam

Silpi Janardanan doing make-up on the face of a Kathakali artiste  

K.V. Janardanan, who was given the name ‘Silpi’ by his fourth standard art teacher, is best known for his make-up work and dance costumes for some of the ancient art forms of Kerala.

Silpi has been a reputed make-up person for Kathakali performances since his 20s, and went on to become the only chutti artist of the dance-theatre to engage simultaneously in designing the costumes for Krishnanattam, the temple art form of Kerala. The twin career has taught Silpi a lot of things about the backstage properties of the two art forms.

Stint at dance institution

The Guruvayur Devaswom recruited him at its Krishnanattam institution when he was 33, and he served the troupe for 23 years, managing its accoutrement, till his retirement in 2012. He was invited to Kathakali greenrooms, after office hours, to do the make-up for veterans as well as newcomers. His formal training was in the 1970s, as a student at Unnayi Warrier Kalanilayam, a reputed Kathakali school in Irinjalakuda, Thrissur district.

“If you take all the costume items, called koppu, Krishnanattam has many more than Kathakali. I realised this basic fact soon after joining the Guruvayur institution,” he notes. “Even then, their looks warranted an update. Either dull in colour or meriting a modified shape, I chose to work on them in my own ways.”

“It wasn’t easy. In fact, it was tricky,” Silpi concedes. “In the 1990s, when I was heading the mission, Krishnanattam had borrowed majorly from Kathakali, which had a dominating influence on the ancient Sanskrit Koodiyattam theatre as well. So I had to ensure that the koppu I altered didn’t add to the identity crisis of Krishnanattam in looks.”

Colour schemes

A good sense of colour schemes is essential for a costume artist who is into traditional arts, according to Silpi. “Selecting an apt shade for the border of the cloth that covers the puffed-up material around the waist is important. Also, the ideal width,” he says. “We ought to have the combined wisdom of a creative carpenter and a tailor.”

Why a red skirt for the Little Lord in five-centuries-old Krishnanattam, when Puranas describe him as Pitambara, the one in yellow cloth? “Well,” reasons Silpi, referring to Zamorin Manaveda, who penned the Sanskit poem Krishnageeti which lends lyrics to the art, “The king would typically bless the boy dressed as Krishna before the performance and would gift him a crimson veerali silk robe, which the actor would then wear.”

Talking about Kathakali, Silpi mentions that there is a flaw in the fundamental practice of learning chutti. “The students work on a mud pot with its base up. But the human visage is never that round or smooth,” he points out. “It’s high time we worked on fibre moulds that resemble human faces.”

Silpi says his formal debut happened without the knowledge of his make-up guru Kalanilayam Parameswaran . “In my first year of training, the institution’s troupe once reached Thrissur to perform Kathakali. The chutti man failed to turn up and my teacher was away too. So the elders assigned me the make-up work for the evening’s character, Krishna. I had to obey.”

That said, Silpi cautions against the “general servility” among chutti artists. “Remember, face-work is not just painting but sculpting too,” he says. He plans to now write a book on the art. “Sadly, there are no standard procedures in its practice. The loose ends must be tied.”

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

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Printable version | May 12, 2021 3:58:01 AM |

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