Kerala is beautiful with its lush vegetation, swaying palms and picturesque beaches and Keralites are a highly literate and cultured people. Hence it is not surprising that one of the most colorful and impressive dance forms in the world today, Kathakali, was born here. Kathakali, it is said, is “Total Theatre, heroic in stature, dignified in quality and epic in its majesty” and the world of Kathakali is titanic, filled with gods and heroes who live, fight and love with “elemental passion”.

The genesis of this art goes back to over a thousand and five hundred years, though in its existing form it evolved only about 300 years ago. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that it is a synthesis of ancient animistic beliefs, tantric rituals and erudite concepts of Sanskrit drama, which has produced an art that appeals to the common man without losing its cultural or religious identity. It is a blending of Aryan and Dravidian cultures with the indigenous traditions of Kerala thrown in.

When reconstructing the history of Kathakali, we have to take into consideration every type of dance and drama that existed in Kerala before the creation of Kathakali, such as the Mudiyettu, the Koodiyattam and other dances associated with the worship of the Bhagawati or Goddess and also martial and folk dances, and the later Krishnattam and Ramanattam. All these have gone into the creation of Kathakali.

In Ilango’s Silapp-adikaran (2nd century AD) are to be found references to the Chakkiar Koothu, which is said to be the earliest dance form in Kerala introduced by Aryan immigrants. All these were incorporated into Krishnattam, which together with the later Ramanattam developed into the Kathakali of today.

These early socio-religious dances were really votive offerings made by a number of people dancing, sometimes indulging in swordplay and dumb shows. Incidentally the martial dances of Kerala were performed by the Nairs or the Dravidians of Kerala and were combat exercises which made the body supple, strong and capable of handling weapons and were taught in gymnasiums called Kalaries found all over Kerala. Actually Kathakali classrooms are also called Kalaries and indicate the connection between Kathakali and the martial arts. Similarly the system of body massage undergone by the dancer is the same as that of a warrior, which further corroborates the link.

Legends ascribe the creation of the state of Kerala to Parasurama, the Brahmin warrior supposed to be an incarnation of Vishnu. The Brahmins ruled the state up to the 2nd century but fed up with internal dissension, hit upon the idea of electing a neighboring Chola or Pandyan prince to be the leader of the Assembly. Gradually Kshatriya Nairs took over the administration. Kerala’s proximity to the sea has also resulted in foreign influences like those of the Greeks, the Arabs, the Phoenicians, the Muslims, and the Portugese. In addition to all these, the earlier Dravidian cultures based on animism, magical cults and ritual prayers, permeated into basic Hindu ritualism with its colorful pantheon of gods and its struggle between good and evil; from the resultant mixture of Tantra, Mantra and Yantra emerged the art of Kathakali “which reflects universal relations through the poetic idiom of the dance”.

Krishnattam is the basis of modern Kathakali. In the 17th century AD, the Zamorin of Calicut created this art as a religious offering. It was a clever imitation of the Geeta Govinda and became very popular. The Krishnattam is supposed to have originated from an earlier form known as Ashtapadiyattam. It is said that when the Raja of Kottarakara approached the Zamorin of Calicut with a request for the loan of his Krishnattam troupe, the latter flatly refused to oblige him, so the insulted ruler, Tamparan by name, (17th century) in a fit of pique produced a new type of dance-drama called the Ramanattam, based on the life of Rama which was staged for eight consecutive nights beginning with Dasaratha’s Yagna for progeny and ending with the siege of Lanka. Hastas or hand gestures and facial expressions were given more importance, and an individualistic makeup was developed and masks were given up. The plays were written in Sanskritised Malayalam which was a great step forward as until then only Sanskrit had been used. Thus the Ramanattam brought the theatre to the masses and when the scope of its thematic content was enlarged to include the Mahabharata, the Puranas and other myths and legends, it came to be known as story-play or “Kathakali”. Soon various kings of Kerala began to write plays for Kathakali and to support and patronize the art. Some of them were gifted dancers and participated also as performers. It is because of royal patronage that from the time of its origin to the close of the 19th century AD, Kathakali flourished.

Tamparan who ruled over Kottayam between 1665 and 1743 made outstanding contributions to the art of Kathakali. He wrote the Bakha Vadha, Kalyana Sougandhikam, etc. based on the Mahabharata. He was a good dancer and an actor. Karthike Tirunal (1724-98) the Maharaja of Travancore, was a soldier, an administrator, a scholar and writer and has to his credit seven Kathakali plays. He has also written a treatise on Natya – the Balaram Bharatham. Prince Ashvati Tirunal, his nephew, wrote four Kathakali plays, out of which two are popular even today, namely Rukmani Swayamvaram and Poothana Moksham. Next came the incredible Swati Tirunal (1813-47) who during his short life composed about 75 padams for Kathakali. Irayimman Tampi, a great poet and his contemporary, composed Keechaka Vadha, Daksha Yagna and Uttara. The art flourished up to the 19th century AD. However under the British rule, Kathakali suffered a tremendous setback until Mahakavi Vallathol, restored it to its original glory by setting up his famous Kerala Kala Mandalam.

Kathakali is a very exacting art, demanding from the performer, complete control of the body, a capacity to feel intensely and express these feelings freely and sensitively. It is for this reason that Kathakali training, which is strenous, begins early and continues for nearly seven years, after which the dancer is allowed to take only minor roles until he gains experience. During the rainy season when the dancer-actor is free, he has to undergo special body massage for making his body supple. He has to constantly exercise every part of his body including the brows, the eyes, the cheeks, the lips and even the chin. The eyes are anointed with butter before exercising them, and almost all movements and hastas have to be practiced every day.

The dancer-actor’s training is a well-organized discipline. As soon as the student is apprenticed to a Guru, he becomes a part of his household and his training lasts for nearly twelve years. The student gets up at about 2.30 A.M., and goes into the Kalari hut where he does eye exercises for two hours, seated cross-legged before the Guru, looking up and down, looking sideways, and rolling his eyes clockwise and anti-clockwise, etc. After the eye exercises, follows the massage; oil is applied all over the body after which the student does several exercises. He is made to lie down with his face downwards while the Guru supporting himself by a rope tied to the ceiling walks on him, all the while massaging his body with his feet. When this is completed, the student has a bath and a light breakfast and goes back again for further practice of Kathakali adavus until mid-day when there is a break for a meal and an hour’s rest. The training is resumed again after this until the evening meal. The narration of stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata follow, till bed-time; it is an exhausted student who goes to bed.

The world of Kathakali is peopled by gods, demons, ogres, super human beings, mythical birds and animals and the characters are invariably larger than life, an effect achieved through the use of special makeup, costumes and fantastic headgear. In fact, the makeup of the actor-dancer is a ritual and follows rules laid down in the 6th and 8th chapters of the Natya Shastra wherein certain sentiments are allied to special colors such as green for erotic, red for wrath, black for terror and yellow for astonishment.

The makeup begins in the green room, hours before the performance with the hope that the actor will, through this long process, gradually become one with the character he is to portray later. The makeup is grotesque, and fantastic but awe-inspiring and sometimes overwhelming.

All mythological characters in Kathakali are broadly classified into three main types:

(a)the Sathvik or virtuous, such as kings, divine beings and heroes,
(b) the Rajasic, those having vices such as greed, vanity and lust, and
(c) the Tamasic who are demonical and destructive types,

with intermediary types having a preponderance of one or the other of these basic qualities. The actor-dancer has to be one of these types and with the help of the Patukaran or reciter who is also the makeup man, gets ready for his part. Incidentally, the makeup artiste is the highest-paid member of the troupe. He first builds up a framework of rice-paste on the faces of the dancers who hold up mirrors to their faces and paint themselves with long flexible palm leaves or bamboo, putting in the fine colours unerringly on their faces within the rice-paste framework. The colours used mostly are green, red, white, vermilion, black and yellow which are ground into a fine paste in coconut oil to make the face look smooth and varnished. Each type of character has a special makeup and costume.

Paccha (Green), Katti (Knife), Tadi (Beard), Kari (Black) and Minnuku (Smooth) are the types of mask-like makeup used. Paccha is makeup for Sathvik or divine personages, heroes, noblemen, virtuous and refined men like Arjuna, Krishna, Nala, etc. The face is coloured with a green pigment, while the eyebrows are thickened and the eyes elongated with black paint. Lips are painted red and shaped like Cupid’s bows, and designes in white, red and black are painted on the forehead. The Chutti or facial border made of rice paste and lime is applied in such a way as to outline the lower part of the face and give it to a strange contour. The makeup takes about an hour to apply, and another hour or so to dry. After this, a red band with scalloped border in white is tied across the forehead and is worn by all actors who wear a head-dress or Kirita.

Katti makeup (knife) is an elaborate form of green broken by a red patch of makeup and is meant for Rajasic characters dominated by evil desires. Basic green paint is used with a white Chutti border while the forehead has red prongs and is outlined in white drawn on it. An oval red and white design is painted on the nose with Chuttipura or pith knobs fixed on the tips of both the nose and the forehead. However, the most important feature of the Katti makeup is the moustache, upturned and painted in red above the lips with white paste outline. A pair of ivory fangs is placed under the upper lip to indicate anger. A good example of the Katti character is the demon Ravana.

The Tadi or bearded characters are of two types, good and evil, the former having white beards and the latter Karruppu Tadi or black beards and Chokanna Tadi or red beards. Veluppu Tadi is the special type of makeup used for mythological characters like Hanuman. The upper face is painted black, the lip, the nose and lower face are reddish, with white ridges, coming down from the bridge of the nose and curling up on the cheeks. Even the white Chutti design at the sides of the faces is scalloped and a white beard is tied under the chin with fangs fixed in the mouth. Barbarians like hunters have the black beard makeup and Shiva as Kirata the hunter puts on this guise. The basic makeup of the black beard is black with vivid patterns of red and white, red with red and white designs painted on the bristles and fangs and white knobs on the nose, and a red beard fastened under the chin. She-demons like Surpanaka have an equally impressive makeup called the Kari with the face and the lips black and fantastic designs of orange, red and white painted on the cheeks. Fangs and large, protruding black breasts are characteristic of the she-demon. A smooth, light buff makeup called Minnukku is used for women characters like Urvashi and Menaka, with eyes and eyebrows alluringly outlined in black and lips skillfully painted in red and cheeks, etc. dotted in white. Rishis and brahmins such as Narada, Parasuram and Viswamitra are also made up in the Minnukku style. Besides these, there are special types of makeup used for Narasimha, Bheema, etc.

To be continued in the next issue…