Theatre

The woman’s role in Kathakali

Tripunithura Vanitha Kathakali Kendram’s Ranjini Suresh dons the greasepaint for a performance   | Photo Credit: Thulasi Kakkat

Kathakali originated at a time when women were confined within the walls of a household. Women’s participation in many art forms that had been in existence for centuries, art forms in which women were an integral part, also faded away during those times. Some other art forms that came into existence at about the same time as Kathakali also did not consider the participation of women necessary. All these arts had men doing the roles of women characters.

Kathakali has always been considered a male art form . It originated as part of the bhakti movement and is believed to have been performed by soldiers of the kingdom, as the plays were written by a prince himself. Since they were well-trained in the martial art of kalari, troupes that followed in their footsteps all across the land also implemented rigorous exercises as part of the training process. And thence started the practice of body massages using the feet(chavitty uzhichil). This practice is believed to be one major reason why women were not welcome in exploring the art.

Kathakali artiste Haripriya Namboodiri.

Kathakali artiste Haripriya Namboodiri.   | Photo Credit: S_R_Raghunathan

History proves that though women were not welcome during the years when Kathakali made its mark as an art, it still could not stop women from being a part of it. The first documented woman to participate in a Kathakali recital is Kartyayani from Tripunithura who was part of the palace ensemble. From then on there have been many women who were noted for their performances. Most of them handled female characters and male characters like Krishna. One major impediment in their continued presence on stage was matrimony. Almost all of them left the art when they got married.

In the mid-20th century many women flocked in to learn Kathakali but they could not become part of mainstream Kathakali stages. One woman who fought the odds and became an integral part of Kathakali is Chavara Parukutty. She dared to overcome the hurdles and became a professional Kathakali artiste. Parukutty struggled to make a living out of it, but that did not affect her love for the art and the septuagenarian created history by continuing to perform on stage.

Kathakali became popular on account of the interest shown by the wealthy and the powerful in society. Namboodiri families and royalty played a significant role in enriching the art. Owning a Kathakali troupe was a matter of pride in those days. But dwindling power and riches caused the art form to suffer and that is when institutes were formed to preserve and propagate the dying arts. This helped in bringing many artists from different schools under one umbrella.

However, one drawback was that students who did not join the institutes were at a disadvantage. They struggled to make a mark and few took them seriously. The most affected were women who were denied admission in institutes on the basis of gender. Although many women were attracted to Kathakali and learned it, to perform on stage they had to create their own space. That resulted in women-only groups formed in different parts of Kerala. They succeeded in staging Kathakali plays and created a parallel space for Kathakali and women.

However, even now few have succeeded in turning professionals and becoming integrated into the mainstream, along with male Kathakali artistes. There are many challenges that hold back women. First is the resistance of art connoisseurs. To get accepted by them is, perhaps, the hardest task of all. Kathakali artists have always been more open and accepting and are willing to teach and encourage their students to perform.

The last few years have seen a leap in the involvement of women in Kathakali. They have been taking a conscious effort to perform plays that are considered physically strenuous. They have proved that nothing can stop them from making the effort. This has created a more positive outlook and acceptance from the critics. A whole new generation of women is coming up as competent artistes and they do not want to make compromises in their artistic freedom. They are willing to suffer the hardships in their path to move centre stage. Having donned the make-up and costume, they are out to prove that they are no less than their male counterparts. This is a welcome change and has persuaded viewers to accept and appreciate them.

(The author is a Kathakali artiste and academic)

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Printable version | May 10, 2021 6:50:48 AM | https://www.thehindu.com/entertainment/theatre/on-women-artistes-in-kathakali/article19313819.ece

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