Think of Kathakali and it’s sure to evoke imagery of vibrancy, opulence, flamboyant Kathakali costume and an expressive Kathakali dance performance. But for me, apart from the imageries, it has always rekindled old memories of school days when working on projects related to Classical Dance forms of India, I was enchanted by the very colourful mask and costume of Kathakali dancers. For as long as I can remember, I had concluded that the Kathakali dancers wore a mask for their performances, until one fine evening in the bylanes of Cochin ( Ernakulam), this myth was demystified.
Kathakali – A flamboyant classical dance form of India
India is a vibrant and rich land of varied cultures, art forms and languages. Thus, a traveller is bound to experience a variety of changes that are both interesting and inquisitive in this country where the landscape changes every few kilometres, especially if it is God’s Own Country, Kerala.
Apart from the culturally rich Fort Cochin that houses the oldest active Jewish Synagogue in the yesteryear colonies, the simple yet elaborate vegetarian food served with warmth, ornate temples and churches, the slow boat rides along the canals of the backwaters and the ever-present rains that distinguishes the state of Kerala from its neighbouring states, what brings back fond memories of my trip to Cochin is a Kathakali dance performance that we witnessed a day after our trip to the backwaters of Kerala . The performance also made me read a lot about the dying art form of Kathakali dance that requires an immediate revival.
While exploring Cochin and Ernakulum on foot, we had chanced upon the Cochin Cultural Centre in Ernakulam. We were asked to attend the Kathakali make-up session if interested, and this was 2 hours prior to the actual performance. This was when a sense of realization dawned on me that the process of demystification has indeed started. After all, this classical dance of Kerala is all about the colourful Kathakali costumes, expressions and elaborate make-up!
History of Kathakali
The Kathakali dance as a dance-drama( dance play) is practised, performed and widely associated with God’s Own Country –Kerala in India. It has its origins in the 2000-year-old classical dance form of Kuttiyatam that used to be performed in temples. A picture of the same has been provided below. The Kathakali dance makes use of nritya (dance) in combination with abhinaya (expressions) that forms the crux and the USP of this dance form.
Navarasa in Kathakali
Most of the classical dance forms of India make ample use of the navarasa, and Kathakali dance is no different. Navarasa are the nine emotions that are emoted throughout the performance. A dance with no mask gives ample scope to express the emotions beautifully without words. This, combined with the mudras (gestures) form the basis of this colourful dance drama called Kathakali.
Deconstructing a Kathakali Dance
Natyashastra is the Sanskrit text on performing arts and it has put forth various aspects when it comes to drama and dance. Remember the six elements of drama according to Aristotle? Well, the latter is something similar to the former. I have tried to describe the dance form of Kathakali under various elements as follows:
Characters in a Kathakali performance
Both masculine and feminine characters in a Kathakali performance are essayed by only men. The female character is known as Minukku.
Training of Kathakali dancers
Students of Kathakali undergo rigorous training that includes oil massages and separate exercises for eyes, lips, cheeks, mouth and neck. One of the special features of Kathakali training is – the teacher, holding to a bar, massages the student with his feet and toes, working gingelly oil into every joint and muscle. The process is painful, but it does create the required fitness and flexibility of the body that is required to execute the extremely demanding dance of Kathakali.
Abhinaya or expression is of prime importance in a Kathakali performance as is nritya or dance and geetham or singing.
I managed to paint a Kathakali face on canvas during this lockdown. Something that I had been intending to do for long. I have used acrylic paints on canvas board. Embedded here is a snapshot of my Instagram account where I had shared this Kathakali painting. Tried to capture the intricacies of the Kathakali makeup also known in Malayalam as Kathakali Veshangal. Hope to paint one soon bringing forth the beauty of the Kathakali costume!
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The first of the painting series I’ve planned around the ancient dance and art forms of India. Kathakali had been on my ‘palette-list’ for long! The Kathakali make-up falls under five categories, and, the one I have painted is the Paccha, that symbolises the protagonist in a Kathakali classical performance. The protagonist is often the one who displays divinity, heroic character and valour in this dance form. . In Paccha, the face is painted in green, with a vermillion mark on the forehead symbolising Vishnu. You may want to read more about the dance form , process of make-up and the importance of the various colours of Kathakali in my well-received blog-post 🍿🍿https://polkajunction.com/kathakali-classical-dance-kerala/🍿🍿 . This painting should’ve been done for RamNavami, nevertheless, here it is- an amateur’s attempt after waiting for over a decade! . #PolkaBrush #hobby #Kerala #Kathakali #art #artwork #amateurartist #painting #acrylicpainting #acrylic #sketching #stilllifepainting #dancepainting #classical #classicaldance #classicalart #costume #makeup #makeuplooks #agameoftones #agameofportraits #agameoftone #colour #colouring #indianartist #indianartists
Eco-friendly Kathakali makeup and its stages
The colours used in the Kathakali makeup are eco-friendly, natural sans chemicals. They are either extracted from various stones, herbs or natural powders that are then mixed with water or coconut oil. This mixture is then ground into a fine paste and used for makeup. I was told that the actors place a small seed in each eye which helps in turning their eyes red. This is not painful but the redness supposedly lasts up to five to six hours and greatly enhances the facial expressions of the actors.
The eye-catching Kathakali makeup is an elaborate process with many stages.
Theppu: First stage of Kathakali Veshangal
The first stage that we witnessed during the Kathakali makeup session is the Theppu, wherein the artist applies the basic paints on his face by himself without any help.
The second stage of a Kathakali makeup: Chutti
The second stage in a Kathakali makeup process is the application of Chutti. The white makeup or Chutti is the very prominent white ridge that is built up from the chin to the cheeks on either side. It is the chutti that distinguishes a Kathakali dance from other dance forms. Originally, the application of Kathakali chutti itself used to take many hours as a mixture of rice paste and lime was used to build the ridges. But, nowadays, only the base is made of the paste and the ridges are of paper. This chutti in a Kathakali makeup is applied by a Chuttikaaran(makeup man) onto the actor’s face.
We also need to know that the basic Kathakali makeup falls into five main classes:
- Kari and
Paccha (means green colour)
This colour is painted on an actor’s face whose role is heroic, kingly and divine. They are also painted with large black markings around their eyes and eyebrows with the sacred mark of Vishnu on their foreheads and Vermilion/kumkum colour around their mouths. They wear a chutti without fail. A golden crown called the kesabharam kirita ( commonly referred to as kirita) adorns their head.
Katthi ( means knife)
The paccha makeup and kirita in a Kathakali performance are used for a character who is full of valour though evil and arrogant. The distinction is made from a protagonist’s character, by applying a red mark on each cheek that looks like an upturned moustache. These characters have white knobs on the tips of their noses and on their foreheads to show that they are evil.
Thaadi ( means beard)
Chuvanna Thaadi (red beard), Vella Thaadi (white beard) and Karuttha Thaadi (black beard) are three different coloured artificial beards that cover just the neck of the characters ina Kathakali performance. Chuvanna Thaadi is for vicious and wicked characters, whose faces are painted mainly black on the top half and red on the lower. Vella Thaadi is usually used to represent Hanuman, a divine being. His make-up suggests that of a monkey, with its complicated white, red and black face patterns. The hunters and the people of the forests are represented with the help of the Karuttha Thaadi.
Kari (means black)
In this, the face is painted black, the costumes are in black and the head-gear is old styled. Thus, we can say that ‘Kari’ is an all-black costume. Characters portrayed in this costume are demonesses and evil beings of ‘paathala lok’ or the underworld.
Minukku ( means glitter or radiance)
This class of make-up is used to represent women, messengers, sages and Brahmin characters of Kathakali dance. The colour used for make-up is orangish-yellow sans the chutti. Also, the costume is not elaborate.
The flamboyant Kathakali dance costume
Once the make-up is applied, the male characters except for the ones with Minukku, wear an elaborate 55 yards skirt before which they drape 20-30 pieces of short cloth to give an oval shape to the costume.
The Kathakali skirt is diligently starched and pressed to make the frills look prominent and on top of this, a thick woollen jacket is draped. Though the costume looks a bit cumbersome, it actually provides the required space for leg movement owing to its volume and shape.
Accessories used in a Kathakali dance
The headgear or kirita used by the Kathakali dancers are specially made from a type of softwood and cane. These are designed and carved intricately by the artisans belonging to a heritage village named Vellinezhi in Palakkad district. A full headgear ideally weighs around 400-450gms.
The elaborate costumes, bracelets and other accessories worn by the Kathakali artists are also made by the artisans of Vellinezhi.
The stage setting for a Kathakali dance performance
The stage set-up for a Kathakali performance is simple, with no scenery as a backdrop. A large traditional lamp is lighted with two wicks at the front of the stage before the performance starts and the radiance from the lamp illuminates and compliments the colours on stage.
Traditionally, the music for a Kathakali performance was provided by two drummers and two singers on either side of the stage. However, in modern times technology too plays a role! The singers recite the story of the play, verse by verse, in Sanskritized Malayalam and the actors interpret every word through their mudras and abhinaya. In this way, the whole story is narrated and displayed.
A Kathakali dance performance in action
A Kathakali dance performance elucidates ideas and stories from Indian epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata and Puranas. Prior to the actual performance, we— the audience at the Cochin Cultural Centre were given hand-outs with play details printed on it. Also, at the beginning of the Kathakali dance play, the navarasas were enacted for the audience to grasp the nuances of this traditional dance form as the play progressed.
The Kathakali dance performance is heralded by the beating of drums called Kelikottu accompanied by the sounds of the Chengila (gong). From a calm start to an emotional and fiery exchange of mudras and dance moves to an eclectic end, the Kathakali dance performance that lasted for more than an hour was indeed an exhilarating experience.
The Kathakali dancers put their heart and soul into the performance so much so that they lived and emoted the characters. It never looked superficial and this dedication is what makes these classical art forms like Kathakali, a class apart, and rooted in reality.
Finally, I not only got to know how the Kathakali dance is performed without a mask but also learnt the intricacies and hard work that goes behind the scenes. From the elaborate Kathakali makeup to the accessories of the Kathakali costume, it indeed is a meditative process for the Kathakali artists.
Parting words on the classical dance form of Kathakali
Due to the advent of various entertainment avenues, in recent times, the cultural centres not just in Kerala but across India are seeing a rapid decline in people’s interest, especially in watching the Indian Classical art forms. If we as Indians take interest in reviving these art forms by encouraging our children to tag along for an evening of classical dance or drama once in a while, these centres will not remain just a tourist attraction. The children too will learn about our rich tradition and culture, apart from life lessons on the importance of fitness, hard work, dedication and perseverance. The influx of spectators will surely encourage the authorities to provide varied and higher platforms for the artists that in turn will better their livelihood.
Read a foreign traveller’s account of the Kerala backwater trip on their blog
Hope you found my deconstruction of the Kathakali dance interesting and insightful. If you have already been a spectator to a Kathakali dance performance, feel free to share your thoughts with me in the comment section. How did you like the Kathakali dance? Did you at any point find it too lengthy or boring? I am putting forth this question because, I remember that though the majority of us in the audience loved the show and appreciated it without batting an eyelid, there were some who found the Kathakali performance slow and uninteresting!
Pay a visit to the cultural centres in Kerala when you visit the state and watch these opulent and colourful Kathakali artists in action. Appreciate the hard work and efforts of Kathakali artists by being part of the make-up sessions and kindly encourage them during their performance. Ciao!
P.S: All the photos used in this blog-post barring the ones with the ‘Image Source’ mentioned, have been clicked by me.
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