ABOUT KATHAKALI – KATHAKALI HISTORY
Kathakali is one of the oldest theatre forms in the world. It originated in the area of southwestern India now known as the state of Kerala. Kathakali is a group presentation, in which dancers take various roles in performances traditionally based on themes from Hindu mythology, especially the two epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata.
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One of the most interesting aspects of Kathakali is its elaborate make-up code. Characters are categorized according to their nature. This determines the colours used in the make-up. The faces of noble male characters, such as virtuous kings, the divine hero Rama, etc., are predominantly green. Characters of high birth who have an evil streak, such as the demon king Ravana, are allotted a similar green make-up, slashed with red marks on the cheeks. Extremely angry or excessively evil characters wear predominantly red make-up and a flowing red beard. Forest dwellers such as hunters are represented with a predominantly black make-up base. Women and ascetics have lustrous, yellowish faces.
The technique of Kathakali includes a highly developed language of gesture, through which the artist can convey whole sentences and stories. The body movements and footwork are very rigourous. To attain the high degree of flexibility and muscle control required for this art, a Kathakali dancer undergoes a strenuous course of training, and special periods of body massage.
The dancers wear large head dresses, and the contours of the face are extended with moulded lime. The extraordinary costumes and make-up serve to raise the participants above the level of mere mortals, so that they may transport the audience to a world of wonders.
The orchestra of a Kathakali performance includes two drums known as the chenda and the maddalam, along with cymbals and another percussion instrument, the ela taalam. Normally, two singers provide the vocal accompaniment. The style of singing particular to Kathakali is called Sopaanam. The orchestra of a Kathakali troupe is unique and provides not only the background to the dancing, but also serves as a highly expressive special effects team. In the traditional village ambiance, the percussionists also provide publicity for the event by playing outside the venue for some hours before the start of the show.
A traditional Kathakali performance begins in the evening and continues throughout the night, culminating at the auspicious hour of dawn, when Good finally conquers Evil. Today, however, it has been modified for the proscenium stage, and urban audiences can participate in this ritualistic theatre experience in the comfort of a plush auditorium, within the span of a couple of hours.
Kathakali is a harmonious combination of five forms of fine art:
1. Literature (Sahithyam)
2. Music (Sangeetham)
3. Painting (Chithram)
4. Acting (Natyam)
5. Dance (Nritham)
The headgear worn by the various characters in Kathakali are excellent specimen of intricate wood carving, an ancient speciality of the region. Even the shiny finishing with trinkets take hours of painstaking labour by expert craftsmen. Most of the ornaments donning each character are made in this fashion too.
The make-up, called Chutty in the bibliography of Kathakali, is also an art form in itself. The colourful faces are the results of hours of painstaking handiwork by expert artists. Their work is, by no means subordinate to portrait painting. The basic materials used for the make up are very crude items like raw amorphous Sulphur, Indigo, Rice paste, Lime, Coconut oil etc.
One of the major distinguishing features of Kathakali is the absence of oral communication. A considerable part of the script is in the form of lyrics, sung by vocalists. The only accompaniments are percussion instruments. Chenda (Drum played with sticks) Maddalam (Drum played with fingers), Chengila (Gong) and Ilathalam (Cymbals). The style of music traditionally accepted is Sopana, where the range is limited to one and half octaves. However, the influence of Karnataka Style of Classical Music has been irresistible, and the singers often take liberty with the style. It is not unusual that a Kathakali performance take the form of a Jugalbandi (Duet) of singing and acting.
Drumming especially of Chenda is the salient feature of Kathakali. Formerly considered an “Asura Vadyam” meaning one that cannot go in harmony, Chena has become the most important feature. Artists are capable of producing a range of sounds varying from the gentle rattle of dry leaves in a breeze to reverberating thunder on Chenda.
Although dance is an important element in Kathakali, it is not the main feature. Pure dance sequences are limited to Kalasams, which punctuate acting segments. Female characters spontaneously breaking into “Sari” and “Kummi” dances can be seen in few dramas. The accent in Kathakali is more on the Thandava style of dancing than on Lasya style. Hence the movements are often explosive. Delicate movements are rare.
The communication among the characters and to the audience, is through an intricate language of hand gestures, used in combination with facial expression and body movements. Kathakali follows the language of Mudras, as described in “Hasthalakshana Deepika”. (See Mudras)