Kathakali Indian Classical Dance

Kathakali, one of the oldest dance forms of the world, originated in Kerala, a coastal state in South India. It dates back to the seventeenth century and is deeply rooted in mythology. Kathakali, which literally means 'story-play', has a unique combination of dance, music, drama, literature and painting. The origin of Kathakali lies in several traditional art forms. Its roots lie in Koodiyattom, the only surviving form of Sanskrit theater in India that has been preserved in Kerala for centuries, by a small community called Chakyar as a part of their hereditary temple service.

Krishnanattom, another form of dance-drama considered fore runner to Kathakali, is performed even today at the famous Sree Krishna temple in Guruvayoor, Kerala.

Besides these two forms, elements from martial, ritualistic, socio-religious arts have also influenced in the making of Kathakali. Kathakali can be said to be the fruit of a fusion between all Indian theatre tradition represented by Koodiyattom and the indigenous tradition of folk dance forms.

Kottarakara Thampuran, the chieftain of Kottarakkara penned the first play of Kathakali performance. A cycle of eight plays depicting various incidents of Ramayana, the great Indian epic, was performed. The performance of each story, known as ramanottam (play pertaining to Rama, the epic hero) lasted for six to eight hours. Eventually, stories from other epics and Puranas were also included and Ramanottam evolved as Kathakali.

In the beginning, the actors themselves sung their verses and colourful masks were used abundantly. Maddalam (two headed barrel shaped drum), a Chengila (metal gong) and Elathalam (a pair of cymbals) were the musical instruments used during performances. 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.

The best known Kathakali playwrights are Kottayam Thampuran, who wrote four stories based on Mahabharatha; Irayamman Thampi, who was both a good poet and composer, accredited three stories; Unnayi Warrier, the author of Nalacharitham (Story of King Nala); and Vayaskara Moosad who wrote one of the popular stories -- Duryodhana Vadham.

In olden days, Kathakali performance generally took place at the temple premises or at the house of the local landowner. A simple canopy housing a ground-level stage and a green room would be erected. The stage would be decorated with coconut leaves, bunches of areca nuts etc. The only source of light was a big bell metal lamp placed down the centre stage.

A traditional Kathakali performance began in the evening and continues throughout the night, culminating at the auspicious hour of dawn, when Good finally conquers Evil. Kelikottu, a brief passage of drumming involving Chenda (a cylindrical drum), Maddalam, Chengila and Elathalam, announced the performance of the evening. The actual performance began late in the night. Arrangukeli, a passage of drumming, announced the beginning of the performance. Thodayam, a piece of abstract dance, followed this.

Junior actors in the group with simple make-up performed Thodayam. Recitation of Vandanaslokam (Prayer Song) is then followed by Purappad -- traditionally a preliminary item introducing the main character of the story in full costume and make-up. However, it is mostly Krishna and Balarama who are presented, sometime with their spouses, in this introductory dance. Next is the Melappadam, which is a musical piece where vocalists and the drummers are given opportunity to show their skill without depending on the actors. Then the story or part of the stories proposed are enacted which may last till dawn. The end of the performance is marked by a piece of pure dance called Dhanasi. Today, however, this practice 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.

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 dancers wear large headdresses, 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 ordinary mortals, so that they may transport the audience to a world of divine wonders.

The technique of Kathakali involves highly intricate gestures and expressions. It is through the language of gestures that the actors convey whole sentences and stories. A Kathakali dancer has to undergo a strenuous course of training to master the art that involves rigorous body movements and flexibility of muscles. Kathakali is predominantly a male art and the dancing is mostly of the masculine type. Beginning in antiquity, this traditional Indian dance form is still a vibrant force and a class by itself.

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