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Kathakali - Dramatic Dance

At Varkala, a coastal town of Kerala, the bells of the Hindu temple of Janardhana beckon pilgrims to worship. At sundown, one hears a different sound – ‘the beating of drums, piercing the twilight beyond the red cliffs and coconuts groves. The drum beats signal that a Kathakali session is about to begin.

Men in clean white mundus (sarong-like lower garment) are busy decorating the make-shift bamboo stage with mango leaves, banana stems, bunches of coconut flowers and strings of electric bulbs. A brass lamp about four and a half feet high sheds its mellow light around the platform.

By now the local residents have already taken their seats and more are arriving from neighbouring villages, some carrying babies and other rolled bamboo mats tucked under the arm. They re eager to spend the night in the company of gods and demons and to rejoice in their mysterious exploits.

As the Varkala sky turns darker, a conch shell blows. Soft and faint at first, it swells gradually and fills the humid air with the power of a celestial voice. Two singers begin to recite the first few lines of the story while two others holding a curtain, some six feet by none, enter the stage. The drum sound rises to a crescendo. Spectators crane their necks to see a mythological hero emerge from behind a curtain. He looks large than life and is resplendent in his towering headdress, elaborate costume and unusual ornaments.

Gripping the curtain’s edge with his taloned hands, the dancer shakes it vigorously screaming in wild fury. Like lighting, the curtain bearers vanish into the dark, leaving the epic character to begin the day’s play.

Kathakali literally means “story-play”. It is some 300 years old but its roots go back almost 1500 years. It draws from almost every type of formalized dance, drama and martial arts. A number of its elements and choreography have been influenced by the 9th century art of Kuttiyattam, the only surviving form of Sanskrit theatre. Despite the inroads of modern theatre, cinema and television, Kathakali, continues to attract enthusiastic audiences in and outside Kerala. This dance-drama has also been able to retain much of its original stylized form, rich in its theatrical traditions and unique values, based on the ancient Natyashastra, a rhetorical work on dramaturgy which lays down principles governing the art forms of dance and music.

Kathakali scenes are woven around legends and stories from the ancient Hindu epics like the Ramayana, Mahabharata and Bhagvata Purana. Practiced traditionally by men, it is an exacting discipline. People who witness the play are familiar with its stories narrated to them during childhood by their mother and grandmothers. They have also seen the epic heroes and heroines painted on temple walls and carved on pillars.

Kathakali is a unique combination of the insights of an actor, dancer, singer, drummer, sculptor, designer and dreamer. It is distinguished for the richness of its colour, a complex language of eye-movements and its hand-gestures, the mudras. It is also the most dynamic dance form unrivalled for its majesty and impact enhanced by glittering costumes of special design.

Four to five hours before the start of the play, the dancers subject themselves to an elaborate make-up. This is governed by complex symbolism of line and design. Each dancer at first paints his face himself in a manner tailored to the kind or role be plays. Looking into a small mirror, he applies hand-ground colours mixed in coconut oil. Paccha or green stands for noble characters, divine heroes and kings. Red represents valour and ferocity and black savage characters called katti. It takes long to master the art of make-up and students spend many years practicing it, painting on the rounded bottoms of terracotta posts.

After the initial colouring of their faces, dancers lie down on bamboo matts “backstage” surrounded by tall brass lamps, as the putty-master – asan – begins to work on their faces. They re metamorphosed into supernatural begins with divine powers of churning oceans, lifting mountains, hurtling through skies and pounding hordes of enemies to dust.

Following a traditional style which is centuries old, the putty-master works using a variety of materials like putty or chutty, paper, cork and polysterene to alter the dancer’s facial topography. The Chutty, a viscous paste of cockleshell, lime and rice powder is applied with great care and precision around the facial contours. The paste must be strong enough to withstand the vigorous dance movements as well as the flexing of face muscles which, during a performance, constantly twist, twitch, expand, contract or quiver to express various emotions. The dancer’s face is further widened by attaching to its sides carefully trimmed and curled strips of white paper embedded in the putty.

The impressive power of Kathakali is enhanced by gorgeous costumes, billowing skirts with streams of scarves and glittering jewels, gold and silver foil. Before entering the stage, the dancer obliterates the natural colour of his eyes by inserting two cundapoova (solanum pubscens) seeds, one under each eyelid. The eye balls are vigorously rotated until they turn ink (for lovers) or deep, bloody red (for demons). He then bows before a lamp seeking the blessings of the deity, Durga, and then struts on to the stage to dance and mime his role, while the singers – one playing the gong and the other the cymbals – begin to narrate the story in the Malayalam language to the rhythmic sound of the drums.

Kathakali dancers, liberated from the tyranny of words, perform through mime, hand-gesture and eye movement. The story is interpreted by highly symbolic mudras – meaningful gestures of the land – conveying a whole world of emotions. In this sign language, hands and figures positioned differently stand for specific words, tenses verbs and phrases. There are 24 basic gestures with many permutations and combinations, which together, convey ideas, feelings, objects and actions. Through his facial expressions and eye-movements a dancer conveys emotions like love, passion, laughter, ridicule, sorrow, pity, horror, disgust, tranquility, heroism and wonder.

Such mastery is the result of years of rigorous training imparted at Kathakali schools from the age of about twelve. The most notable among them is the Kerala Kalamandalam at Cheruthuruthy established in 1930 by the celebrated Kerala, poet Vallathol Narayana Menon and his friend Mukunda Raja.

At the Kerala Kalamandalam young boys who receive a stipend from the government go through an exacting drill of body massage with medicated sesame oil, dancing lessons, muscle-control and eye-exercises, tears roll down their eyes as they practise moving their eyeballs in circles, semi-circles, up and down and even executing the figure 8. Their day starts with oil-massage given by the asan (master) who places his big toes on the oiled-body of the pupil and gently massages by putting his entire body weight on the toes.

With many years of such arduous training and dedicated application behind them, Kathakali dancers group themselves into well-knit teams and perform in places such as Varkala, dancing into the small hours of the night. As song and drumbeats fill the air and the earth trembles under their feet, spectators witness episodes that have thrilled people for centuries.