Indian classical dance. Kuchipudi style.

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Kathakali Style

Kathakali is a bright dancing performance from the rich and fertile southern state of Kerala. It is the most colorful, sincere and passionate dance form in India. As an art of Kathakali Styleunique depth and human warmth it includes humorous comments that miss none of aspects of human life. It is far from being just a drama. Even when a Kathakali dancer plays a scene alone his poetical art creates imaginary space that acquires real boarders and stretches to the farthest horizons of the emotional.

Although in its present form Kathakali appeared in about XVII century its roots go back to various folk and dramatized forms of entertainment that appeared much earlier. Among them Chakiar Kothu, Kudiyattam, Krishnattam and Ramanattam had the most direct influence upon Kathakali. The sources of inspiration for it also were the ancient forms of hand-to-hand combat and folk traditions of Kerala.

Chakiar Kothu was a dramatized kind of art performed by only one caste – chakiaras.  Their right to perform in temples of Malabar was passed down from generation to generation and only elite public was admitted to these strictly canonized performances to be sure take place on temple territory. A chakiar was a witty imitator; he played scenes from epic poems and puranas. He was accompanied by a namizhava, a big brass drum with a relatively small membrane, and by cymbals played on by a woman.

In state Kerala the drama was born in the form of Kudiyattam. A popular legend was performed by several actors together, one plot could be played for several days at that, and the art of mukha abhinaya (drama art) developed into a complex technique. Performances took place by night. Definite make-up colors and costumes started to be appointed to every character. The ruling Perumalas and later Kulashekhara, the king of Chera, patronized this kind of art.

Training and teaching in hand-to-hand combat in Kerala had the purpose of charging body and mind with energy by means of physical perfection. A beautiful military caste of nayaras devoted themselves toKathakali Style this. Like in the countries of the Far East battle methods were used here. But in spite that tools were used during trainings the purpose was physical training and self-defense. Young nayaras many of whom later reached the heights of mastery were trained in ksharis (gymnasiums) in a scientific method of body massage and vigorous exercises.

The rite of Krishnattam was developed in XVII century by a zamorin (a ruler) of Calcutta as an offering to Krishna. It used to be performed in Guruvayur temple or in zamorin’s temple. The text of the performance lasted for eight nights and was performed in Sanskrit. They say it was written under the influence of popular at that time "Gita-Govinda" by Jayadeva.

Soon after that Ramanattam a story about Rama appeared. It was composed by Raja Kottarakkara a commander from the southern Kerala. A legend says that he once asked a zamorin to lend him his troupe that performed Krishnattam but was refused. Being insulted he made up his mind to create a similar eight-day performance based on Krishna’s story of life. As far as it was performed not in Sanskrit as Krishnattam but in the Malayalam language, it soon left Krishnattam far behind in popularity. Pantomime and gesticulation were used in Ramanattam. The art of complex make-up developed, musicians were invited for the accompaniment, certain conditions for characterization of personages appeared. Soon plots started to include stories from "Mahabharata" and Puranas.  This form of dance drama grew up, developed and got the name of Kathakali, literally a story-play.

Local kings and the land aristocracy were proud of being able to support their own troupes and Kathakali Stylegenerously helped to develop the new style. Among them the following can be marked out: Thampurana from Kottayama and some rulers from the Travankur dynasty such as Balarama Varma, Asvati Tirunal and Svati Tirunal Gama Varma. A poet Iraiman Thampi also made great contribution to the development of the genre in both his literary talent and monetary contributions. With a support like this the style flourished and widened its frames. Later with the gradual decline of the might of royal families, Kathakali began to give its way to more popular forms of entertainment; Kathakali actors could not support themselves any longer. Performances continued to take place in some areas but without the former scope. This kind of art was saved from a threatening and complete disappearance by a great poet Vallathol Narayana Menon who in 1930 founded the Center for preparation and training in Kathakali named Kerala Kala Mandalam.

It is impossible to overestimate Vallathol’s foresight. He invited many eminent teachers and actors to Mandalam among whom were such leading figures as Ravunni Menon and Kunju Kurup. Thus Kathakali survived, got stronger and turned into a force one cannot but count with.

While watching Kathakali sometimes there is an impression that a dancer knows no oral language, so freely he possesses the sign language. This language together with quite complex and figurative use of mimicry is the essence of the style. A performer interrupts a dialogue with movements drawn from the pure dance but can also lead a ceaseless conversation with the help of gesticulation. Even when a hero thinks, plans or remembers something a dancer translates all this into gestures thus initiating spectators into a train of thought of a personage. A part of a dialogue may include lyrics written especially for the given hero or for the scene performed. The lyrics are sung by two singers in turn. A dancer interprets lyrics very thoroughly, first translating each word in a line for word into gestures and then varies the interpretation of the same line in order to include the situation, a reaction to the situation, possible consequences or results of this situation etc. Thus a relatively short poetic fragment is interpreted by a dancer in a rather wide way.

In order to freely transmit thoughts with the help of gestures and mimicry a Kathakali dancer must go through exhausting training that will teach him to creatively use body and mind abilities, will give himKathakali Style the skills necessary for the future work. Boys begin to study in gurukul (a school) at the age of ten and learn from sunrise till sunset. Every day professional masseurs massage the boys using special oils for muscles and joints relaxation, giving them elasticity necessary for dances of this style. This firstly painful massage followed by a bath taking is done daily during the whole period of learning that usually lasts till the boys are twenty years old. A dancer lies down on the floor and a masseur massages with his feet counting every muscle, joint or nerve. Legs, arms and in particular toes as well as all other parts of body are massaged. As a result a dancer senses every part of his body independently from other parts, and in the future he will be able to manage and use them on his own accord.

In the main Kathakali position knees must be moved apart to give body a wide basis. The back is arched and supports the body weight in free movements that are characteristic of the style, and also the weight of a heavy headdress. When a dancer stands in this position it looks like he sits on a stool. Out of this position a dancer moves forward and backwards, sits down on the floor, jumps and stretches himself on the floor. Knees are not often joined together only in case an actor stands straight what happens when he is motionless or simply listens to another hero of the action.

Not only body is subject to systematic exercises but also every part of a face especially eyes. It is as exhausting as training other parts of body and requires great concentration. A dancer sits on the floor with his legs crossed and arms folded on his chest or on laps. He presses chin to his chest and opens his eyes wide. Then he starts to move his pupils horizontally, vertically and circle-wise. He draws eights with his eyes first slowly then faster until it becomes hard to watch their movements. It reminds meditation because thoughts calm down, only the muscles around eyes move.

It is not allowed to move during this exercise, while eyes work a dancer’s head and body must be absolutely motionless. Then brows, chin, cheeks, mouth, neck and head are trained at first separately, then in various combinations. The purpose of these exercises is to teach a dancer to control facial muscles and be able to completely manage its different parts. This emphasizes the elegancy of mimicry elements during a performance.

The performance of nrytta or pure dance is based on strict adherence to the system of basic figures and jumps from the semi sitting position. It is uneasy in itself to learn a great number of motions and figures by heart, but the main thing is to understand their meaning in characters and moods of various personages. A finished fragment of a pure dance is called kalasam. It would be untrue to expect every dancer to interpret a given kalasam in the same way. A dialogue of actors alternates with kalasams, that’s why the interpretation and performance depend on the song rhythm in the scene, on the mood of the episode and first of all on the portrayed personage. A dancer may win the audience approval by performing kalasams vigorously, gracefully or excitedly or cut them short sharply, all that depends on the preceding dialogue. For instance, for personages like Hanuman there are traditional compositions performed by experienced dancers who are guided by their temperament, age and reputation.

Kathakali dancers use a complicated sign language. It is based on the book "Hasta Lakshana Deepica" Kathakali Stylethat contains the developed rules of 24 most important hastas. However, because of the great number of their combinations it is impossible to say for sure that there is any complete list of them. So much depends on the mastery and imagination of a dancer that true leading figures of Kathakali and other styles eventually raise high over the instructions of technique and resort to fewer hastas or to any other motions and figures regulated by rules.

Hastas are visual portrayal of lyrics. A musician adds melody to lyrics thus shading their meaning. By mimicry, motions and gesticulation a dancer introduces sense and life into poems, turning acoustic images into visual ones.

A Kathakali dancer widely uses metaphors. It is believed that all the living things can be correlated with the nature, and hastas are built on such correlations.  Besides, hastas in Kathakali may denote such notions as "the same", "even", "but", "with" etc., what is of rare occurrence in the dance. Every language has its phraseology, its rhythm, its consequence of words. Kathakali seems wonderfully correlates with sanskritized Malayalam that serves as a means of its oral expression.

In a narrative episode an actor may choose one of the following variants. He may describe physical notions such as a mountain, a palace, a forest, a garden, fire; on the other hand he may portray a woman, an elephant, a bee, a lotus, an enemy etc. Or he may remain himself and react to a situation by playing rage, despair, greed, humbleness, arrogance, passion or contempt.

While developing his idea an actor chooses the corresponding comparison and quite visibly renders the meaning of what he wants to say in detail description of what he compares. For instance, in portraying a bashful woman, this trick may turn out very effective for it shifts the audience attention from a woman’s personality upon the main idea of a dancer. A hero may look at his beloved, shy and silent but full of love and passion. He compares her with liana and says: "You are so tender and shy; you remind me a liana that winds around the tree and cannot grow on her own". Then an actor develops this idea for quite a long time, first portraying his beloved by showing in details how shy and fragile she is, then he demonstrates how she stands with her head bowed and eyes down; after that he looks at the imaginary liana and shows how it grows winding around a tree etc.

In this is the difference of Kathakali from other styles, this is an absolutely visual form of art. This is "the absolute theatre" both on the level of one performer and in a wider meaning as a theatre action. The purpose of an actor is to create a character that probably was not developed in a play. And not just to create the character of a mighty Bhima whose part he may play but to show to the audience the flowers growing on his way, a woman he loves, the depths of the forest he makes his way through, arrogance of his enemies and his oath of revenge. All his emotional sorrows and joys are reflected in his behavior and the way he walks. Different opportunities are hidden in him, both trivial and supernatural ones. While watching him a spectator cannot but admire the strong portrayal of the superhuman and the honest portrayal of the human.

According to tradition a Kathakali has always been performed by night on a simple open platform without decorations, side-scenes, curtain and backstage. The only "properties" was and still is aKathakali Style traditional stool that actor may use on his own accord as a throne to sit solemnly on, as a tree to climb up or just a chair to rest on while another actor plays in proscenium or in the stage center. He may place it anywhere and move from place to place if the development of plot requires this. Therassila or screen is used very effectively to hide the appearance of a new personage. Two men hold the screen in front of an actor in such a way that the audience can only see his legs and the headdress. The true symbolism of his costume is hidden from them and every new personage begins his performance with exclamations from behind the screen thus creating a strained anticipation with the audience. By the time the screen is taken away he already becomes a full participant of the action and is completely associated with the role he plays.

A big lamp is placed in the front part of the platform; oil is added in it from time to time. It gives beautiful natural yellow light waving to the wind in contrast to stable rays of modern projectors. The level of illumination naturally singles out a rather small circle where the action takes place, and attracts the audience attention to it. When an experienced actor wants to emphasize the smallest (finest) changes in mimicry he may take a sit under the lamp and then every movement of his eyes, neck, chin and brows will become brightly outlined and reflected on his face because a flickering flame as if "highlights" it properly and at the same time makes waves of light across the face in contrast to modern projectors that make light and shade freeze on place.

The term Aharja abhinaya is used in relation to costumes and make-up. In Kathakali more than in any other style of Indian dance these two elements serve as a necessary link for understanding characters of dance drama. The heroes and plots in Kathakali tell about supermen. Legends about gods and demons are transferred upon the stage, and each personage possesses supernatural and sometimes divine forces. Traditions of make-up originate from the ancient forms of folk art of Kerala and also in Kudiyattama and Krishnattama. In time the costumes grew better and the whole performance makes the impression of a complete splendour. Dancers have large skirts, shirts and various beautiful ornaments on: bracelets, ribbons on wrists, chest plates, several rows of bells on ankles and calves, a very heavy and painted headdress and long artificial hair. Costume, ornaments and make-up are so complicated that it is hard to imagine how actors can dance so vigorously with such a load.

Personages of the Kathakali drama are divided into three big dramatic types: sattvik, rajasik and tamasik.

Kathakali StyleSattvik: noble, heroic, generous and refined heroes. Their make-up is put on a bright green background which is called pachkha in the malaylam language. A white chutti is drawn from jaws to ears. It serves as a boarder sharply outlining face, on which background a complicated make-up stands out especially brightly.

Lips are painted with a glittering pink colour, two little circles are drawn in the corners of the mouth. Eyes are penciled with sharp black strokes from the internal sides of eyes near nose up to the hair line. A complicated religious sign naman is drawn on the forehead. The heroes with pachkha (green make-up) have fine, elegant and aristocratic appearance. Among them are Bhima and Indra.

Krishna has green make-up on his face too, but his headdress (muti) isKathakali Style not so big, with fewer spangles and on the top it is decorated with a semicircle made of peacock feathers. Other personages with pachkha have multicoloured headdresses, kiridas, they are much larger than mutis and are brightly decorated with green, white and reddish spangles. The heroes with green make-up usually have white skirts and red jackets on; Krishna wears a blue one. The actors playing Shiva and Brahma put their make-up on a pale orange background, pajuppa, the rest of the make-up, costume and headdress is similar to the personages with pachkha.

Rajasik is an antihero like Ravana, Duryodhana and Kichaka. Their make-up is called katthi. The green colour of the background remains because the heroes with katthi possess positive qualities too: generosity, devotion, nobleness and love. However, the green background is crossed out by bright red lines across forehead, nose and cheeks by which they can immediately be identified.

However, what immediately marks these heroes out is two chuttipos, white balls made of plant pulp Kathakali Stylethat are fixed on the forehead and the tip of the nose. The same balls can be found with very wicked and mean "bearded heroes". A hero with katthi, with his costumes and headdresses reminds the personages with pachkha. His character is arrogant and aggressive. He does not stand rivalry and will not miss the opportunity to boast of his virtues and valour. He gets angry easily; he does not listen to the voice of reason and responds sharply to reproaches. In the presence of his beloved who usually comes in his dreams, the impudent and arrogant hero with katthi becomes sentimental and humble. He is quite often the most memorable among the personages and frequently is the audience favorite. At his will a hero with katthi exposes a pair of fangs to demonstrate his rage. The roles of antiheroes are very popular and serve as a test for dramatic talent of an actor. A dancer utters various sounds starting with a sweet and tender cooing during the conversation with a beloved or while praising her, up to long and loud howls and roar when meeting an enemy. These heroes are the decoration of the evening performance.

Personages with tamasic features are called thadi or "the bearded men". They are cruel and malicious to the bone. Among them chavanda thadi or the red beard especially distinguishes. These mean andKathakali Style demonic roles are embodied by such personages as Bakasura and Dushasana. They have a completely different make-up. There is no white chutti across jaws and chin. The basic colour of make-up is black and covers the eyes area and the most of forehead instead of usual red signs outlined by a white line. These heroes are easy to recognize by huge moustaches visible from under a complicated tracery made of paper and painted red on which background black lips are sharply distinguished. An actor often shows two white fangs in the corners of a mouth. White balls on nose and forehead on the background of black and red face are the symbols of fierceness, and they are much bigger than the heroes with the katthi have. Actors playing thadi are usually tall and strong men with mighty figures capable of holding extremely heavy and massive headdress. A red bearded (chavandu thadi) is a strong earthly personality; he is uneducated and depresses everyone with his presence. He walks arrogantly and constantly uses foul language.

Besides him the black bearded or karutta thadi take part in the performance. These are primitive and ungovernable types embodying the lowest of the human qualities. They are wild especially in comparison with the more refined heroes of the drama. Their faces are totally painted black with a little of red and white around eyes and with bright red lips. A chuttipo on nose is not a ball but rather reminds an open flower. The headdress is not flat and round but long and cylindrical, of black colour, opening or broadening on top. Karutta thadi is represented by a katala or a hunter, and by a kirata or Shiva dressed as a hunter. Another important representative of thadi is Kali, an evil personage who also has black beard.

The monkey-kings of Bali and Sugriva possess certain animal qualities characteristic of the monkey Kathakali Styletribe, but it is Hanuman the divine monkey from "Ramayana" who takes a special place in the hearts of people. His beard and a fur jacket are white; his make-up is quite colourful especially on cheeks, on the forehead and nose. The background of the make-up is red and black, but a complex white tracery softens the strictness of these paints giving it in general a rather calm and neutral character. Hanuman’s headdress consists of a domelike crown; its flat basis rests on the head. Hanuman is one of the most favourite heroes of the Kathakali drama, this role is usually given to a sincere and experienced actor.

Karis are the black personages, the background of their make-up is black and they have black costumes on. This vesham (costume) is put on byKathakali Style rakshasas or demonesses like Purpanakha, Ravana’s evil sister. She also wears two false breasts that emphasize her ugliness.

Besides the heroes with the make-up background like pachkhi, katthi, thadi and kari there are minor personages like minnaku that embody women and sages. The colour of their faces is supposed to be natural but in fact the background of their make-up is glittering and orange-yellow. Eyes and brows are penciled in a natural way; their costumes are simple and realistic. These personages, be it a woman or a sage, behave in a restrain and full of dignity manner. Sages are obligatory to have a beard, hair is gathered in a knot and clothes are made of fine material. Unlike major characters of the play, the minakku personages are rather fragile people and this at times creates quite funny situations which actors bring to their logical ends in order to slightly relieve the stress.

Female parts are traditionally played by men. That’s why their costumes are made in such a way to hide their belonging to male sex. An actor exaggerates female features in walking and behaving, special Kathakali Styleattention is paid to kalasamas be performed lightly and elegantly.

Before the performance a Kathakali dancer puts a small seed in his eye. It absorbs moisture and gives red hue to an eye. It balances the colour solution of the rest of the make-up. Unlike the followers of other dance styles who are identified with the style they belong to, Kathakali actors achieve individual popularity as actors playing certain roles. It often happens that an actor specializes in playing a role of one personage which he is eventually identified with.

There are two singers and two drummers in the Kathakali Theater. Besides, singers play instruments that keep up the rhythm and manage the musical accompaniment in a certain way. Each drum has its definitely expressed sound. Maddalam is a two-piece drum lake a mridangam, though larger. A performer wears it on a belt and while playing he holds it low on hips. The fingertips on the drummer’s right hand are covered with rice paste which hardens like plaster and allows not only strike membrane without hurting fingers but also touch it lightly when the development of the plot demands it. The other drum is of a cylinder shape and is called chenda and is played in a standing position. It hangs on a drummer’s shoulder and is played on with a palm of one hand and a thin stick in the other hand or with two sticks one in each hand. In most cases a drummer beats on chenda from one side.

This instrument accompanies only to male heroes. Aedakka is a drum of a smaller size in the shape of a sand glass and is played when a female personage appears on stage. It has a softer tone than a male chenda that sounds loud and sonorous during the performance. The main singer keeps up the rhythm by striking a heavy metal gong chengala with a thick and short stick. The second singer beats the rhythm with a pair of heavy cymbals ilattalam. The singing style of Kathak is close to that of Karnatak classic music but is called sopanam, the style of performance that corresponds to expressive dance.

Kathakali is an absolute theatre. Singers sing text; actors render it with gestures, pantomime, motions and dramatic playing. An actor’s mind, body and heart simultaneously take part in the disclosing of a theme. He cooperates with other personages and goes beyond the limits of a formal theatre, with the help of gestures and pantomime creating an atmosphere in which he wishes to stand in front of the audience. He "plays" the properties necessary for the role. He creates a forest and goes through it. He portrays his beloved and then comes close to her. He discloses his secret plan and then fulfills it. A spectator is influenced on two levels: the belief in the world created by an actor fights with the worship to the great mastery of actor playing.

A performance starts after the dark; drums beat fanciful rhythmic patterns calling spectators to the performance. Evening turns into night gradually; the characters appear on stage in the same gradual way. Time does not fetter them. Wonderful actors play and demonstrate the unique virtuosity. At one moment of this magic night the audience is immersed into sleepiness, at another moment it is held in a restraint suspense. The climax of the night performance is the fight. The noise becomes almost deafening. The audience waits for the dénouement anxiously. Onstage a wild activity is going; a vortex of costumes and swords raised high.

This is the great world of theatre. The reality comes with the dawn.


Based on the book "Rhythm In Joy" by Leela Samson

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