Kathakali, a relatively recent performing art with a 400-year-old heritage, is one of the great artistic wonders of the world. Originating in Kerala in the southwest corner of India, it vividlyunveils the stories of larger-than-life characters-gods and demons-of Hindu epics with an aesthetic combination of dance, theatre, mime acting, instrumental and vocal music, and above all the pageantry of extremely bewitching costumes.
Kathakali Dance-Theatre, written by one of the highly regarded writers of our times on Kerala arts tradition, records the art of Kathakali comprehensively, right from the scenario that paved the way for Kathakali's origin and development to its present history. The book Chronicles its various facets-theacting, music and costumes, crucial contributions of the masters, momentous incidences, evolution of styles, riveting anecdotes, and related socio-political issues affecting Kerala. The first-hand personal rendition of the author's experience and the detailed glossary make it immensely readable. Full of photographs depicting the masters of the art, green room activities and the vibrant theatre of Kathakali, this book will be a treasure trove of information for uninitiated readers, arts scholars, theatre buffs, potential researchers and students keen about the art and its future.
K.K. Gopalakrishnan, a well-known writer-photographer and a connoisseur specialising in Kerala performing arts traditions, started writing for a host of periodicals like The Indian Express and The Mathrubhumi Weekly (Malayalam) at a very young age. In the past twenty-five years he has been writing mostly for The Hindu newspaper's supplements such as their 'sunday Magazine', 'Literary Review', 'Various editions of the 'Friday Review', and 'Sruti' Magazine (Chennai). He is the honorary Editorial Associate of Hyderabad-based 'Nartanam Quarterly;, the only English dance journal in India having global readership.
Choosing to resign from his post as officer at State Bank of India to focus on art studies, since December 2010 he is serving as the Director of the Centre for Kutiyattam, Thiruvananthapuram, of the Sangeet Natak Akademi, Delhi, the national academy of music, dance and drama under the Govt of India, Ministry of Culture.
He is also the Governing Body member of the South Zone Cultural centre of the Ministry of Culture for the support of South Indian cultural tradition and a member of the General Councils of the KeralaSangeetha Nataka Akademi and Kerala Folklore Akademi (state academies for arts and culture).
Popularly known as both KK and KKG in the Indian arts scenario, is a significant source of information / reference for artists, scholars, media and research students including those from foreign countries.
Books on the dances of India-folk, tribal, semi-classical, dance drama traditions, jatra or on classical and contemporary expressions-are few and only rarely written from the 'inside', as it were.
The first flush of books that emerged on the dance heritage of India post Independence were more or less 'observations' made on these complex dance forms that either already existed or were in the process of being discovered. Later the books were more theoretical-in some cases excessively so-listing copious terms and names from the shastras, but also missing the heart of what was actually happening in the dance. It posed the question-who should write on dance? Should it be the art scholar or aficionado, or the dancer herself?
Dancers of the generation were however the rib bones of the great masters and did not have the time or inclination write, so immersed were they in the love for it and practice of it. And alas, it is only that scholar who has flexed and stretched her muscles as a student of the form and has sat at the feet of the great guru, who can write with any authority on it. A good combination would be a person who is one among the practitioners, but who can also look upon the dance forms as an academic study, so that she may tell story with clarity and sensitivity both, for theory doe not stand alone like a tree. Rather like a creeper that serve to enhance the beauty of the tree and seem one with it, or be parasite and destroy it. The great practitioners themselves had a suspicion of the written word. They had learnt the theory through the oral tradition and arrived upon an understanding of it through practice. It was this they passed on to their shishyas.
What love is evident not just for the art form, but one who belongs to the place from which it hails, understands their everyday rituals, the caste bias and nuances of the their temperament, is part of local customs and shares in the barbs made in the local vernacular-in fact all that contextualises the form, as also a sense of its history through his or her sanskaara or inheritance. Such a person may just fill the gap that earlier stained the writings of the 'outsider'. People foreign to that particular area from which the dance hailed and grew, have tended to make judgments based upon their observation of the practice that they come to learn and even perhaps love, but are not necessarily informed of the larger context of these art forms and the social nuances of it people.
K.K. Gopalakrishnan's love for Kerala, his homeland and its art forms is obvious from the very opening of the book he has penned on Kathakali titled Kathakali Dance-Theatre. He is undoubtedly a 'Kathakali bhrantan;-one who is 'happily crazed' by it.
This book takes you through every aspect of this exquisite form of dance expression. His excitement is evident as he runs out of words to describe his experiences and the memories-its music, sahitya, the drumming, the elaborate costume and make-up, the actual performance, the history and the contribution of kings and zamindars, the great artists themselves and varied groups of lovers who formed support groups. Every detail is vital is vital to him. But what makes the book special is the accompanying anecdotes from conversations he has himself had with the masters and practitioners or the common legends that are part of its social fabric.
Gopalakrishnan places the form in the historical, social and existing caste context with the feudal clans and royal families playing a critical role in the development of Kathakali, to the abolishment of these systems when India became a democracy, to institutionalisation and present day trends and what afflicts the style and might even destroy it.
In order to understand Kathakali one has to appreciate the stories that are played out, the verses that are sung and particular words to convey a though, for it is these that have resonance in time past and future. The dancer enacts these verses at various levels-words for word, or the picking up of a pivotal phrase or idea for elaboration, often referring to past births or relationships and future connections either to the person being addressed or in reference to the person he is talking about.
KK admits to this book being the sum total of his experiences of the performances of most of the masters of the last forty odd years, one of whom he loved like a son loves a father. From these masters he learnt to discriminate and understand the rationale behind particular enactments.
He walks you through Kutiyattam and Kalarippayattu, Teyyam and Mudiyettu, Mohiniyattam and Nagiarkoothu-the exponents, their lineage, the differences between them, their histories. He writes about Ramananatham and Krishnanattam- the precursors to Kathakali-and the legend that Ramanattam, created by Kottarakkara Tampuran, might have been born to avenge an insult from the Zamorin of Kozhikode who was the proud keeper of Krishnanatham, something that historical records do not clarify.
It is interesting how royalty in the form of Kattyam Tampuran was the author of four important plays with episodes taken from the Mahabharata that become the origin if Kathakali and Vellatt Chathu Panikkar the chosen choreographer, therefore, could be called the first asan of the art. From then flows a history of great, great teachers and practitioners. There is no one the author has ignored, no stone unturned to do an in-depth tracing of the lineage of exponents and their particular strengths. This is done not only for guru and dancers, but for musicians-vocalists, drummers-make-up or chutti artist / dressers too.
Interesting additions to the book are the many lists and tables of temples associated with Kathakali, the mudras and their uses, the most popular attakkahas, women in Kathakali present day kaliyogams, an in-depth glossary, te ingredients required for makeup, the rages used, the ragas used, the minukku character, the proficiency of the pettikkaran and the number of knots it easy for reference at a glance. He has also included historical lineage maps trace the guru-shisshya parampara.
What is also pertinent is the role of the institutions and gurukulas, especially of Kerala Kalamandalam started by the poet Vallathol Narayana Menon and Manakkulam Mukunda Raja, an art lover history inspirational work in the beginning, as also its lack of vision and foresight after Vallathol's era. Many are concerned about present trends and easy appreciation. Another highly respects asan of our time and my mentor to the world of this art form said, 'Today there is only Katha, no kali'. Regrettably today's rasikas are easily satisfied with the obvious, the dramatic element minus the rigour of the form. Changes. Innovations in present-day Kathakali and the passing away of the greatest of artists for whom Kathakali was a way of life not a commercial career, compromised teaching patterns and a lack of respect for the sanctity of learning in the young are all a threat to its future. However, the fact that over two hundred plays have been written and produced, including several new repertoires in the past four decades, means an engagement with the form and a promise of the future.
Every ancient art form and its development are women with colourful and mythical fables, riddles, hearsay and several black elements in between which actually enhance its charm and acceptability. Though relatively not so ancient with a history of only 400 years, this is applicable to the art of Kathakali too; several vital elements of its progression are not being properly recorded.
Hence the aim of this book is to record the momentous contributions, incidences, reliable turning points, some of the significant anecdotes, etc., while unveiling the history of the and its development, especially for the benefit of the aficionados and art scholars who are alien to Kerala. Some of the beliefs and stories lack an authentic record. But they are orally passed through generation to generation by masters and believed by many and hence found a place in the book. Keeping all this in mind, this book is aimed at a variety of people-art buffs, art scholars, theatre lovers and potential researchers who may find hints for several virgin topics, and finally students keen to know about the art and its future.
Keeping the above in mind, the contents of the book include extensive histories information, analysis of the many diverse aspects of the form, evolution of the different schools, the training process behind acting, singing and drumming and costume creation, significance of its theatrical language, various repertories, the contribution of patrons towards the form, meanings of jargons, latest developments- for good or for worse-etc., along with a personal account of my own experience. Please bear in mind that the names of masters and artistes, their periods and lineages, etc., provided are purely representative and not exhaustive.
Sometimes the details and the names may be overwhelming too, but will be useful as a records, particularly for readers wanting to go further into the art. In Malayalam most of the male names, including Puranic/epic names, and with 'n unlike in Sanskrit or many other Indian vernacular languages. Hence in Kathakali the names are Bheeman, Narakasuran, etc.' however for the sake of convenience they are Bheema, Krishna, Narakasura and so on and so forth in this book.
There are Malayalam letters of the alphabets that have no equivalent in English. Further, several Malayalam words are either derived from Saskrit or are sanskritised, and Sanskrit words, including proper names, have different diacritics. Several letters of the alphabets have to be written either with a dot above them or below them in order to achieve phonetic correctness. Some letters are kinds of fricative consonants, where the sounds is created by the tongue first touching the palate and then hitting the back of the teeth hard. A dash above a vowel is always required to make it a longer syllable. To avoid complexities while reading, and since the book focuses on the general readers too,, such exercise of inserting dots below and above, dashes above the vowels, etc., have been avoided.
Additionally, while writing native word in English, words haveing letters such as 'a', 'the', 'dha', 'da', 'u', 'uu', 'e', 'ee', 'i', 'ca', 'caa', 'cha', etc., confuse the readers regarding exact articulation. Names like 'Bhima' are popularly written as 'Bheema' as well. Hence, what the Indian English periodicals mostly use is asapted. For instance, in terms of transliteration with some justice to the intonation of Malayalam vowels and consonants it is literally 'Mhaabhaarata', 'coliyaattam', 'Kuutiyattam', 'Raamanattam', Krishnanaattam', 'Nangiaarkuuttu', 'Mohniyaattam', 'Viduushaka', 'aasaan', 'Katti', 'Katathanaattu', 'Raavanan', 'Hanuuman', 'Caakyaarkuuthu', Kalyaanasaugandhikam', 'Kuncan', 'Paancali', 'Siita, 'Nalanunni', but the Keralite/Indian mainstream print media almost always spell them as 'Mahabharata', 'Cholliyattam', 'Kutiyattam/Koodiyattam', 'Ramanattam', 'Krishnanattam', 'Nanuman', 'Chakyarkoothu', 'Kalyanasougandhikam', 'Kuncjhan', 'Panchali', 'Sita', 'Nalan Unni', etc., to cite a few words/names that appear in this book as examples. For the convenienc of the readers, the letter is used in the book. To cite another example, the title (and caste name as well) 'Panikkar' is often spelt as Panicker, Panickar, Panikker; Nair as Nayar; Puthana as Putana, Pootana, etc., too. There are many issues involved in the transliteration of several such terms, names and words. The above details are not comprehensive but only an attempt to enlighten the reader about the correct pronunciation.
Rev. Dr. Hermann Gundert (1814-2893), the very first to come with a Malayalam-English dictionary in 1982, provided a dependable table on the transliteration and pronunciation of Malayalam vowels and consonants in it. Words such as padarthaabhinaya (acting of verses with gestures), vandanasloka (verse seeking blessings), patinjapadam (verse in slow tempo) are split (for instance, as padartha abhinaya, vandana sloka and patinja padam, respectively) for the convenience of readers not familiar with such words/terms. Thus readers, especially scholars and linguists, are requested to bear this in mind.
Kathakali is an art form that repeats the same repertoire for decades and centuries; its aficionados as also know for repeatedly watching the same play with the same artistes, too, more often than not. That is the most interesting magic of it with a simple reason-Kathakali is a classical art form which is always contemporary.
The Land And Its Vivid Culture
Kerala's landscape and its classical arts have one thing in common-both are intensely dramatic. Learn about any one of Kerala's art forms and you get an insight into a whole world of tradition. To understand Kerala's forms it is necessary to know something about the state. It lies on the west cast at the southernmost tip of the Indian peninsula. According to myth, Sage Parasurama cleft the land out of the sea with his divine axe. The language of Kerala is Malayalam- mala means hill and alam stands for vale, valley, etc.,-and the people of Kerala are knows both as Keralites and as Malayalees. The words 'Keralam' in Malayalam means 'the land of coconuts' (kera); it may have evolved from 'Cheralam' (Chera + alam, the land of Cheras). The beaches, backwaters and the blinding green of its dields and forests are unique to the state. Bound on two sided by the stats of Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, it is flanked on the west by the Arabian Sea, with the Western Ghats running along its eastern boundaries. Criss-crossing the state are forty-four rivers.
Kerala is where the Indian monsoon breaks first in June. In all, it rains here for about 100 to 130 days a year; the monsoon itself for almost two-and-a-half moths at a stretch. Though not the ideal season for travel, tourists flock to the region in large numbers during the monsoons. The monsoons here are one of the most spectacular natural experiences in India. Only one quarter of Keralas'd population lives in towns and cities. A village in Kerala, however, is quite different from one elsewhere in India. Its living is more like that of a development township. Drive the state and you will see that concrete buildings and 'modern' mansions punctuate the attractive expanse of its fields, forests and impressive traditional architecture. You may or may not like these buildings, but they are an inseparable part of the dynamically changing socio-economic scenario of the state that is enriched by remittances from Malayalees living and working abroad.
While Thiruvananthapuram is the state capital, Kochi in Ernakulam district is the most important tradition and tourist hub for Kerala. The main international airport of Kerala, known as both the Kochi International Aiport and Nedumnbassery Airport, is in Ernakulam district. Thrissur in central Kerala, on the other hand, is its cultural capital; considered so right the period of Shankaracharya (eighth century), the pioneer of Advaita Vedanta philosophy. The state-run literature academy (Kerala Sahitya Akademi), fine arts academy (Kerala Lalitha LKala Akademi), and performing arts academy (Kerala Sangeetha Nataka Akademi) arts all located here. THerala Kalamandalam, state academy for traditional reforming arts, is located at Vallathol Nagar, Cheruturthy, in Thrissur district.
Kerala enjoys high literacy-ninety-one per cent according to government statistics. Malayales thus politically conscious and in general well-read people. During state elections they have followed the volatile tradition of voting in, by rotation, two of the strongest political fronts in the Left. An average day in the state is often punctuated by some protest or the other, often blocking the traffic. These demonstrations could be concerned with a local issue or a global event like policies of the US or the hanging of Saddam Hussein.
If follows then that Malalees are avid newspaper readers. There are about fifteen vernacular daily newspapers in Kerala, in addition to about fifty evening tabloids and about one hundred weeklies and monthlies and four prominent national dailies in English.
Concurrently numerous performing arts traditions, dance theatre and music have developed and flourished in Kerala. They can be broadly classified as below; within each category, the forms are further differentiated and a few have close affinities with each other:
Koothu (storytelling traditions): Chakyarkoothu, Nagiarkoothu, Tholpavakoothu, etc.
Kali (play): Kathakali, Kanyarkali, Poorakkali, Sanghakkali, Kaikottikkali, Kolkkali, Pulikali, etc.
Attam, also spelt as Attom (dance and theatre): Kutiyattam, Ramanattam, Mohiniyattam, Tiyyattu, Kurathiyattam, Kaliyattam (Teyyam), etc., (in Malayalam language, 'i + a' becomes 'ya').
Tullal (jumping, vigorous dance): Ottantullal, Sheethankantullal, Parayantullal, Sarpamtullal, (also knows as pambintuallal; related to worshipping of snakes), Komaramtullal, etc.
Paatu (song): Kalampaattu, Sarpanpaattu, Ayappanpaatu, Gandharvapaattu, Kurunthininpaatu, Bhadrakalipaattu, etc., fall within this category along with several related forms involving religious/ritual drawing with coloured powders of rice, turmeric, flowers, charcoal, leaves, etc. The song is only one of the elements, along with Tullal, Koothu, etc., that comprise these forms. The music and also the dance elements, along with Tullal, Koothu, etc., that comprise these forms. The music and also the dance elements, with amazing footwork, that provide the climax to this sort of ritual are together classified a sPaattu and included in this category.
Kottu (drumming): This is a general name for the use of all types of percussion ensemble, which function both independently and as an essential or additional accompanying instruments. Chenta, maddalam, mizhavu, itakka, timila, etc., are classified in this category along with cymbals and wind instruments.
Vilakku (lamp): Festive forms like Ayyappanvilakku, Chamayavilakku and Chovvavilakku fall in this category, where huge oil-lit lamps play a prominent role. At some places in Kerala, Ayyappanvilakku and Ayyappanpaattu are of similar nature but with regional flavours. Chovvavilakku of northern Kerala is almost extinct. Chamayavilakku is performed by men dressing up as women.
This list us by on means exhaustive. Stylised elements of the state's rich folk and ritual traditions are apparent in all its classical arts.
As in the other states of India, the artistic heritage of kerala too was nurtured by its royal families and its feudal clans-that is, the upper-class Hindus. Socio-economic changes in the early twentieth century saw this patronage collapse. India became a democracy, the feudal system lost its power and the stringent caste system became less important. So the establishment of the Kerala Kalamandalam by serious art lovers and scholars (between 1927 to 1930; see chapter 8) came as a revolution, beginning an era of institutionalisation of arts patronage. The government later took over the running of the centre and today its patrons are government nominees.
Like any classical art, an appreciation of Kerala's traditions requires some basic knowledge of the forms. For instance, to understand and appreciate Kathakali well, one must be familiar with the story that is played out, as well as the mimesis and gestures. While the text is in verse, its interpretations by the actor are in prose. Above all one, requires a broad understanding of the Hindu epics and application of expressions, suggestive acting, etc.
Kathakali Kathakali is one of the artistic wonders of the worked although it is only about 400 years old. It evolved in the seventeenth and under the influence of a host of at forms. It is the very first popular classical arts tradition of Karala not to be associated with rituals or Brahminical patronage. The origin and development of the art began with the support of royal families; its exact history is unrecorded and only since the involvement of Brahmins-the Nambootiris'-has the history of the art been documented.
'Kathakali, as we now see it, therefore, dates back to about the time that Shakespeare was writing his plays,' recorded David Bolland in his book, A Guide to Kathakali. In Malayalam, the word Kathakali means story-play; Katha is story and play. A typical Katakali performance is an audio-visual feast: it is a rare combination of pr-choreographed acting and onstage improvisations by actors, pure dance and expository dance with technically prescribed theatrics, accompanied by vivid costumes and make-up, vocal and instrumental music. But it is also remarkably austere art-properties for instance are used minimally-with great emphasis on subtlety.
It takes a trained eye to experience and understand the richness of kathakali and it grows on the aficionado like an addiction. Its connoisseurs are indulgently referred to as Kathakali bhrantans in Kerala. They are said to be willing to travel far, sit up wholke nights and forsake their families to watch a chow by a master.
At the same time, the art satisfies people are simply besotted with costumes and make-up, drums and rhythms and the pristine quality of the music for acting, the abhinaya sangeetam. Thus the art attracts the lay audience too, even those totally ignorant about the Hindu epics, on a different level.
Though is English 'pantomime' carries the meaning of entertainment, while ;mine connotes acting without speech, there are several people who, considering its integrated musical elements, opine that Kathakali may be considered as a 'pantomimic' dance drama. While some scholars consider that Kathakali is a mimetic dance drama other argue that acting in Kathakali cannot be seen as representational art. Fundamentally, however, Kathakali is a dance-theatre form in which the imitative representation is refined and accompanied by organically enriched music (both vocal and instrumental), and dazzling costumes-together they take spectators into an imaginative world. The mimetic tradition in fact is ancient in India; even the Vedic sacrifice was essentially a mimesis.
This multi-actor theatre form both indisputably and elegantly combines three basic elements of Indian aesthetics, which together are knows as touryatrika-a medley of music, drums and dance. It is inherently a mimetic theatre form. In addition, Kathakali employs all the four elementary aspects of acting according to the Natyashastra, the very first Indian treatise on performing arts, generally believed to be authored between 200 BC and AD 200 by the revered Indian sage, Bharata (known as Bharatamuni): aangika (acting with body movements and hand gestures), vaachika (vocal), aahaarya (make-up and costume) and saatwika (subtle emotional expositions by the actor). This book is the sum total of my experiences-of the performances and classes of most of the masters of the last quarter of the twentieth century and more than a decade of the this century and the budding artistes and amateurs of the period. I leave it to the readers to decide for themselves if Kathakali needs a closer definition.
Like any other performing arts tradition, contemporary Kathakali has evolved through innovation, reformation and stylisation at the hands of several masters. Some of these names found a place in the recorded history of the art; a few were fortunate enough to become legends in their lifetime and many faded into oblivion for want of documentation. But almost all of them lived and breathed Kathakali. Except during the monsoon months, and that too for limited hours, it seems they barely slept. At night, they would bring the gods and the demons of Indian epics for their audiences and during the day either trained their disciples or trudged on foot from one place to another to perform, carrying large costume trunks. Their earnings were negligible, enough for just a meal or two each day. During monsoons, even on days it poured, they would begin their training mission in one personally one personally experiences them.
No words can express the art lover's gratitude to those masters; only a silent gratitude for keeping a great tradition alive. This book is humbly dedicated to them all.
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