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Kathakali - God's Own Art Form From Kerala

Posted by Art Of Legend India [dot] Com On 10:46 PM
Kathakali - God's Own Art Form From Kerala
Short Summary: Kathakali, the ancient dance drama of Kerala has always mystified me right from the childhood. When I was a child, I was hooked on to the art form.

The compelling facial expressions, mesmerizing eye movements, mime make-up, hand gestures and excellent footwork- do you need anything else to stay glued to your seat ? You must be wondering what I am talking about.  I am watching a Kathakali performance. The play being enacted in front of me is ‘Sita Swayamvaram’ (marriage ceremony of Goddess Sita).

An art form is a divine manifestation. I have always felt that the artists be it singers, dancers, craftsmen, painters and others are blessed souls. It is always amazing to see them performing and giving their respective art forms a new interpretation.

I feel so spirited and rejuvenated when I watch a dance performance or attend a concert. Truly art is universal and divine. It might be these aesthetics that have brought me today to this stage.

What is Kathakali?

Kathakali, the ancient dance drama of Kerala has always mystified me right from the childhood. When I was a child, I was hooked on to the art form (I am still though). I used to wonder how one can move one’s eyebrows so swiftly. What do the artists put on their face that makes them look so green and red? Don’t the drummers feel tired of all the beating?

But today I know that excellence comes with practice and hard work. I have seen the artists practicing hours in front of the mirror to get their expressions and the Hastas (hand gestures) correct.

Kathakali depicts the lives of God and people. It is not simply a dance drama. It is more of a social event. People gather with their kids and family in the temples where the performances are held. It used to be a routine or a tradition in all Keralite families. The performance goes on till the wee hours. But unfortunately due to the less attention span of the audiences today, the performance usually ends within 3-4 hours.

I am sure anybody who is interested in this ancient art form must have watched a Kathakali performance at least once in their lives. Let us try to deconstruct this brilliant art form. 

Kathakali as an art form has been there since the 17th century. It was never an elitist dance form as were the other classical art forms of Kerala. The performances were attended by common people as well as scholars. But Kathakali always had an intricate structure.

A Bit About Kathakali Orchestra

The Kathakali orchestra comprises of 2 vocalists and 3 percussionists. The lead singer is called ‘Ponnani’. He plays a loud gong called ‘Chegala’ and sets the mood for the performance. The vocalists stand on the left side of the stage and the percussionists towards the right.

Three kinds of drums are used in a Kathakali performance. The first one is called ‘Chenda’ that plays the famous weeping sound and remains throughout the performance. The second is ‘Idakka’ (hour glass drums). This instrument represents the female character in a play. The last one is called ‘Shuddha Madalam’. The percussionists wear thick rice paste and lime coverings on their fingertips to create a deep and resonating sound through this instrument.
Apart from the above mentioned instruments, Manjira (set of small cymbals) and a conch shell are also used in Kathakali. All the instruments are handmade except the shell. The playing of conch shell signals the arrival of an important character or the unfolding of a dramatic event.

Kathakali Makeup

Kathakali Makeup
Let us talk about one of the most important aspects of a Kathakali performance, which is make-up. Do you know the secret behind the fresh and vibrant faces of the Kathakali artists? The colors used in the make-up are natural. The white color comes from the rice flour, the red from vermillion and black from soot. Initially the head gear of the artists was made of palm sheath with designs painted on it. Today crown has replaced it.

The text forms the heart of a Kathakali performance. As the actors don’t speak, the drama text is full of verses and songs sung by the vocalists in the Sopana style with slow and sweet tempo. ‘Hasthalakshana Deepika’ is the regional text on the hand gestures in Kathakali.

A Kathakali play comprises Sathwika (hero), Kathi (villain), Minukku (female) and Thatti.

Kathakali as an art form has evolved with times. It was once criticized of being associated with only Kerala folklore and mythology. But plays like ‘Charudattam’, Kathakali adaptation of Julius Caesar shows how this art form is attaining a universal nature. Coming in of many girls to learn this art form has shut the mouths of those people who say that Kathakali is a male bastion.

The Academy of Arts is one of those few institutions in Kerala that offer study and research in this art form. It is set to become a university.

I hope Kathakali doesn’t vanish from the pages of history and people come forward to preserve and cherish our rich heritage.

This article was authored by Surya Pillai, one of the authors of the blog Kerala Ayurveda.

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