Friday Review

Behind the colours of Kathakali

Rooted in a rich 400-year heritage, Kathakali is Kerala’s gift to the sphere of performing arts. A self-confessed Kathakali bhranthan (fanatic) K.K. Gopalakrishnan, noted writer-photographer and connoisseur specialising in Kerala performing arts, who currently serves as the Director, Centre for Kutiyattam, Sangeet Natak Academy, guides the reader through the origin, evolution, traditions and complexities of the genre, viewed through the prism of personal experience in his book ‘Kathakali – Dance Theatre – A Visual Narrative of Sacred Indian Mime’. The author navigates the vast canvas with the familiarity of one treading home ground and the precision of an insider who formally learnt the art.

Like his peers, KKG gained an appreciation of Kathakali at an early age while still at school. Hailing from a tharavad famed for its staunch patronage of the art, he gravitated towards Kutiyattam and Kathakali performances. His father encouraged his interest which soon turned into a governing passion. In the mid-80s, KKG became the founder-secretary of the Kottayam Thampuran Memorial Kathakali Club which led to greater opportunities for direct interaction with stellar artists. Simultaneously, he began gaining recognition as a Kathakali reviewer. His big break came when he was recruited by M.T. Vasudevan Nair to write a series for the weekly, Mathrubhoomi, after which he also became a columnist for local and leading publications. Giving up a secure job in the banking sector, he devoted himself to a full-time study of the arts.

Kathakali is believed to have originated in the 17th Century from Ramanattam, in turn said to have been formulated as fitting reply to Krishnattam, with all these genres being predated by Kootiyattam, the most ancient extant form of Sanskrit dance-theatre. The similarities and differences between them are clearly delineated. It was Kottayathu Thampuran, the raja of Kottarakkara whose four classic oeuvres are prized as the holy grail of Kathakali, who defined the essential form and content. The next phase saw the evolution of regional styles — the northern Kallatikkotan shaped by Vellath Chathu Panikkar and the southern Kaplingatan chiselled by Kaplingat Narayanan Namboothiri. In Kannur, Kozhikode and Vatakara areas, the Katathanad style germinated as a regional variant of the Kallatikkotan. Pioneered by Nalloor Unniri Menon, the Kalluvazhi chitta, an integration of the Kallatikkotan and Kaplingatan styles, flourished in the Palakkad district.

The institutionalisation of Kathakali came with the founding of the iconic Kerala Kalamandalam in 1930, the brainchild of poet laureate, Vallathol Narayana Menon and Manakkulam Mukunda Raja. With this, the doors were opened up to all those who wanted to learn the art, irrespective of class or creed. Other noted schools established were the Kottakal PSV Natya Sangham, Unnayi Warrier Smaaraka Kalanilayam, Sadanam and Margi. Immediately prior to and after independence, several changes were effected in training, syllabus and costumes. Among the titans whose dedication ensured the growth and survival of the art were Netumpura Valiya Itteeri Panikkar, Pattikkamthoti Ravunni Menon, Kuyilthoti Ittiraricha Menon, the Panikkar trio of Chandu, Ambu and Chinta Panikkar, the Kannan trio, Parassini Kunhiraman Nair, Kuthannur Shanku Panikkar, Vazhengata Kunchu Nair, Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair and a host of other great asans. Their efforts were augmented by Kathakali sangeetham stalwarts such as Nenmara Madhava Menon, Kavassseri Samikutty Bhagavathar, Katathanattu Govindan Nambeesan, Takazhi Kuttan Pillai, Venkatakrishna Bhagavathar (vocal) and Kalamandalam Unnikrishnan (percussion). Though there are a handful of active women performers today, Kathakali remains a male-dominated genre on account of the physical rigour involved. As recorded in K.P.S. Menon’s ‘Kathakalirangam’, the first woman believed to have learnt and performed Kathakali was Katyayani, in the 1700s. Kattasseri Sarojini Amma, Vanchiyoor Katyayani Amma, Kalamandalam Kalyanikutty Amma, Chavara Parukutty, Kottarakkara Bhadra and Ganga rank among the rare tribe of women artists.

Why does Kathakali hold endless fascination for aswadhakas who watch the same performances, sometimes by the same artistes for consecutive days and nights, enacting themes drawn from the same repertoire that has remained unchanged for centuries? The answer lies in the fact that it is a ‘classic art form which is always contemporary’. A sophisticated amalgam of vocal and instrumental music, percussion, theatre, mimesis and dance, it urges the rasika to delve deep into the realm of myth, Gods and demons and to correlate it to the universal play of emotions and actions that shape the lives of mortals, through themes both common and rare, from the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagavata. A complete art form, the discipline includes, but is not limited by, the four elements prescribed in the Natyasastra – aangika, vaachika, aahaarya and saathwika. Kathakali defied the much-debated Aryanisation that coloured many other South Indian traditions. For instance, it depicts death, violence, blood and gore on stage with relish, with a blithe disregard for the Natyasastra precept of refraining from the same. Again, anti-heroes such as Ravana, Duryodhana and Narakasura are featured as central characters, while the roles of Rama and Krishna assume secondary importance.

For all its visual sumptuousness, Kathakali has a core of austerity. Stage props are minimally used and economy of movement draws depth from subtlety. However, the splendour of its costumes and make up (aharya) is so distinctive that it merits a separate study. The original lime and rice paste ‘chutti’ (white facial border) was replaced with white paper in a pioneering move by Tiruvalla Ramakrishna Panikkar . While facial colouring pigments continue to be naturally derived, coloured glass and plastic are used nowadays in kesabharam (crown) and ornament inlay.

KKG emphasises that an in-depth appreciation of Kathakali entails an understanding of the land, its people, their social and cultural ethos. Yoked to a feudal society, whose laws stemmed from a rigid caste system designed to keep the dispossessed classes in perpetual subjugation, some Kathakali practitioners joined the discipline voluntarily, while others had the decision made for them by rich local patrons who wielded the power to determine their destinies. In this parochial set up, their lives revolved around the kaliyogams (troupes/schools) which in turn were entirely dependent on the largesse of the patrons. Epic heroes on stage, the artists were subjected to the whims of patrons off it, often having to compromise on their self-respect. While many patrons encouraged them with public approbation, a gift of new vestments, veera sringala (golden bracelet)or the conferment of titles such as Menon and Panikkar, there were some who belittled and even insulted them, deliberately making them wait for hours under a blazing sun, before doling out a token remuneration. The footnotes provide an overview of local customs and a social commentary which records legends, landmark events and their repercussions, ranging from stories of Poontanam Namboothiri and Irattakulangara Rama Warrier to the Kuriyidath Thathri scandal.

More agony than ecstasy, the Kathakali artist’s lot has never been a happy one. Considering the pain and rigour of the training generating ‘the cramps of the early days, the blood in the urine as the massage regimen progressed’, meagre earnings, almost nil recognition, absence of capable stage directors, thinning audiences, and inadequate corporate sponsorship, it remains a wonder that a few brave souls still choose to enter this arena. Hence, the author’s immense pride in a priceless heritage is underscored by a palpable concern for the well-being and future of the art and its practitioners who await long overdue recognition at the state and national levels.

Firmly ensconced in his bailiwick, the author serves up a comprehensive, compelling account, wrapped in the flavour of a lived experience. Empathy and insight light up his descriptions of the noctilucent aura of all-night performances and the vicissitudes of artists’ lives. Thoughtful touches include the listing of famous, oft-staged plays and illustrations detailing mudras (hand gestures). With an aesthetically designed layout highlighting the text and outstanding photographs by KKG, the volume is a labour of love, passionately and painstakingly compiled over several decades. Capturing memories and impressions with remarkable vividness, the book is a visual treat, a collector’s item and a must-read for students, scholars, researchers, and all aswadhakas.

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Printable version | Nov 28, 2021 11:13:38 AM |

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