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Kathakali Art of Kerala

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Among the various performing arts of India, and perhaps, even in the world, Kathakali is unique so far as it is the farthest from earthily reality and humanism. There is no attempt at representing the mundane world in any manner - whether by imitation or otherwise. Only epical, non-human beings are chosen for the re-creation of a story for presentation on the stage. At the same time Kathakali portrays human emotions of high intensity with the help of facial expression, hand gestures and body kinetics. The great epics of our land like Ramayana, Mahabharatha and Puranas like Bhagavatha are the fountain sources of Attakkathas, the verbal texts of Kathakali. This art is believed to be originated about 400 years ago, when, a ruler of a principality of the erstwhile Travancore State named Kottarakkara is credited to have given shape to it. This great scholar choreographed eight plays, drawn from the epic Ramayana for stage presentation in the name of Ramanattam, the precursor of the present fully developed Kathakali.

Even before the days of Ramanattam, Kerala had a fully developed and ancient theatre genre viz. the Koodiyattam Sanskrit theatre. There is no other highly stylised, structured and sophisticated theatre art like Koodiyattam, anywhere else in India, which employs the tenets of the Natyasastra, and the exalted principles of Natyadharmi. The four fold modes of stage enactment viz. Angika (gestural or body kinetics), Vachika (oral), Aharya (Sartorial : makeup and costume), Satvika (pertaining to the mind) which the Koodiyattam Sanskrit theatre abounds on, are also seen to be fully adopted and built into Ramanattam also. At the same time one more dimension, not found in Koodiyattam viz. Geetham or music in the Sapthasvara (seven notes) gamut, finds expression in Ramanattam. The Vachika (oral rendition by the actor) in Koodiyattam confined to a narrow range of notes, whereas in Kathakali, finds fully developed expression in the form of lyrics or libretto rendered in sophisticated musical modes (Ragas) by two singers behind the actor on the stage. This background lyric presentation (instead of the oral rendition by the actor) must have been adapted in Ramanattam from Krishnanattam, another genre of Kerala’s dance-drama theatre. This reform ensured the three dimensional appeal of Kathakali otherwise known as Thouryathrikam viz. Geetham (music), Nritham (Dance) and Vadyam (percussion ensemble). Relieved of the burden of speaking /intonating on the stage, the Kathakali actor could traverse greater heights in emoting Angika (gestural) and Satvika (mental) modes.The gestures of athakali, whether of the hand, face or of the body are spontaneously linked with rhythm; even the sub-organs of the face move in subtle micro-rhythms, giving a symbolic, indicative visible manifestation of ideas and objects. This expression through body kinetics developed a unique body language, which is a great achievement of the art of Kathakali.

The aharya (facial make-up and costumes) of Kathakali is unique that it has been conceived and designed to subserve the characters that are portrayed - which are non-worldly and nonhuman. Such a wonderful, beautiful, colourful concept has helped to rivet world attention to this art. These stages have been reached through centuries of evolution - thanks to the contributions of successive generations of playwrights, performers and maestros (natyacharyas).

The plays of Kottayathu Thampuran, based on another great epic Mahabharatha which followed Ramanattam are the supreme examples of natyadharmi, particularly through the four fold acting modes which may be held to have found their ultimate consummation, culminating in stage aesthetics of a very high order. Others that followed like Unnayi Varrier, Irayimman Thampi have also enriched the repertory. The music in Kathakali started on the basic sopanam, a purely Kerala style, which employs all the seven notes, but does not indulge in excessive fineries (gamakas) employed in classical Carnatic music. The Ragas (modes) are however the same seven note based musical system.

The libretto which itself is by great poets/composers/choreographers is rendered in such musical modes as are appropriate to the bhava or mood. Two singers - the lead singer called ponnani and the second singer called sankidi - render the libretto to well set rhythm patterns called talas. The effect of this is heightened by the play of the percussion drums like Chenda, Maddalam etc. The librettos are listed under three types of verses - sloka, pada and dandaka. The slokas introduces the tenor and context rendered behind the curtain. The stage acting is to the accompaniment of padas, whereas the slokas, in effect, announce the purport of the story. The pada form is employed for interaction (dialogue) between characters. This kind of acting to the lines is called ‘cholliyattam’ or ‘acting to sung lines’ as opposed to ‘ilakiyattam’ or ‘acting extempore by lingering on and developing an important event or situation without the aid of the sung lines. There are also dance movements of great beauty named kalasam, chuzhippu, iratti etc. which embellish the stage actions.

The percussion ensemble of Kathakali is unique and vastly enhances the effect of the acting on the stage. The main instruments are Chenda (a vertical drum) and Maddalam (a horizontal drum). The latter alone is played when female characters are enacting. ‘Chengala’ wielded by the head singer corresponds to the baton of a conductor in western symphony. This thick brass plate struck with a stick, regulates the entire stage acting in terms of setting the pace, activating the dance movements etc. This is activated by using Ilathalam, a pair of brass cymbals, which keeps the rhythm in combination, by the second singer. Idakka drum is also used for female roles occasionally. The conch is used as the opening note (herald) as also on other momentous occasions.

Five talas (rhythm patterns) are generally employed in Kathakali. They are champa, chempata, atantha, panchari and thriputa. Other rarely employed thalas are muriyatantha and eka. These patterns are set to vilambitha (slow gait), madhya (medium), drutha (fast) and athidrutha (very fast). These variations corresponds to the characters, situations, moods etc.

The plays generally staged on the Kathakali stage belongs to two types. The first is the highly structured having kalari (academic) precision. Eg. plays of Kottayathu Thampuran or Irayimman Thampi etc. The second type have acquired a reasonable precise but elegant performance format by constant enactments on stage. The best example is Nalacharitham play written by Unnayi Varrier, which ranks as an all-time great among Kathakali plays. ‘Based on the literary text of Kathakali and dependent on the auditory art of Kathakali music and expression, it is recreated into a visual art through the imagination, skill and the genius of the actor and aesthetically transmuted into Rasa, rapture in the mind of the sahrdayan, or connoisseur.


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