The kinetics of Kathakali

U. Sethunath. Photo: Courtesy: A.V.Jayanthan  

Kathakali is a complex amalgam of story, dance, theatre, poetry, vocals and percussion, each component governed by well-defined rules that date back to the 17 century. Therefore, it is advisable to do one’s homework before viewing a performance. Informed appreciation on the part of rasikas contributes towards their gradual understanding of this ancient art form that basks in a renewed surge of interest in the present-day performing arts scenario.

To this end, Uthareeyam featured a lec-dem on Kathakali appreciation by U. Sethunath, as a preface to the staging of ‘Narakasura Vadham’ at the Sopanam Hall, Mahalingapuram Ayyappan Temple. A trained Kathakali artist by passion and a software engineer by profession, Sethunath began with an explanation of some of the technical aspects of performance for the benefit of fledgling aficionados.

Kathakali’s generic structure may be viewed in terms of mudras (hand gestures), rhythm, body movements (kinetics), body language (kinesics), performance methods, costumes and make-up (aharya). The stories enacted are written in compliance with the generic structure and the norms, with the same scheme followed in the rendition. For the actor-dancers, the rigorous training progresses from basic mudras, primary steps and body movements, rasas, upanga sadhakas (eyes, eyebrows, eyelids, lips), kutti tharam (minor roles) and ida tharam (moderately important roles) to adyavasanam (protagonist roles). While mudras form the alphabet, a movement (chulippu) accompanies each mudra to constitute the grammar to which navarasa is added. There are two Kathakali styles in vogue – the northern Kalluvazhi chitta and the southern Kaplingadan style.

The base rhythm (tala) is controlled by the lead singer Ponnani, using a gong (chengila) struck with a stick and accompanied by the Ilathalam (cymbals). The lead and accompanying vocalists sing verses from the story, supporting the actor’s performance. Chenda, maddalam and edakka are the powerful drums that accompany chengila as well as the actors’ movements. When chenda leaves areas of pause in percussion, they are filled in by maddalam, which also synchronises the pitch. Melappadam is a distinct segment wherein the scene is enacted with only percussive accompaniment, sans vocals.

Each pure nritta sequence called kalaasam is structured by rhythmic syllables called vaythari silently chanted by the actor. Ashtakalaasam is a particular sequence of kalaasams performed at select points of the narrative. To illustrate, artist Kalamandalam Sarath demonstrated a portion of an ashtakalaasam featuring in the padam ‘Manasi Mama’ from Kalyanasowgandhikam. Another example from Uttaraswayamvaram, in the padam ‘Aravinda Mizhi Maarey,’ the depiction of thamara (lotus) was built up step by step with contributory elements – to achieve the overall effect. In another illustration, the kekiattam (peacock dance) and pakarnattam (one artist performing two or more roles) from Narakasura Vadham were enacted, effectively communicating the points elucidated.

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Printable version | Nov 25, 2021 6:50:15 PM |

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