For stories from Kayal

Kathakali- The dance drama of Kerala

by Maaneesha Panicker


June 28, 2012

We are in an ancient palace in the temple town of Tripunithura, Kerala. The evening opens amid a riot of colors. The artists are applying facial make-up. Some are coloring their cheeks with streaks of green, others are elongating their eyes with black color. After putting on heavy jewelry and donning big costumes, the artists are no longer themselves. They assume the role of the characters they are playing- kings, gods and demons. The drums beat, and we are magically transported to another era.

Earlier this year, Jyotika Jain; an award-winning photographer and I traveled through lush Kerala in search of authentic Kerala. Growing up, I was amazed by the elaborate green room preparations of the Kathakali performers. I decided to take her along to witness a traditional Kathakali performance being staged on the outskirts of Kochi.

For the uninitiated, Kathakali is the famed dance-drama of Kerala that literally means 'story play'. It is believed to have originated in Kerala sometime in the 16th century. The stories are all from two of India's greatest epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, and are layered with endless labyrinths of unforgettable characters and highly dramatic situations where the endings are always happy, edifying and affirming the good.

Today's act is Bali Vijayam, a humorous story from the Ramayana; the epic that dates back to 5000 BC. The story, set in Sri Lanka, depicts the fight between Ravana; the demon king and the Bali; the monkey king. My favorite part is the initial tease where the lead artist gently lowers the curtain and reveals himself bit by bit, dancing and wailing.

Kathakali is known as the 'first theatre of imagination of the world'. Writing about it in her Booker prize-winning novel The God of Small Things, Arundhati Roy says "To the Kathakali man, these stories are his children and his childhood. He has grown up within them. They are the house he was raised in, the meadows he played in. They are his windows and his way of seeing. So when he tells a story, he handles it as he would a child of his own. He teases it. He punishes it. He sends it up like a bubble. He wrestles it to the ground and lets it go again. He laughs at it because he loves it. He can fly you across whole worlds in minutes; he can stop for hours to examine a wilting leaf."

What is most striking about Kathakali is that the artists never speak. Artists heavily rely on facial expression and hand gestures. Kathakali consists of nritya (dance) and abhinaya (mime) and structurally affords plenty of scope for improvisation by the actors.

In the years past, several of the artists enjoyed almost movie star fan following amongst connoisseurs. Die-hard fans followed their favorites from venue to venue in the festive season and avidly sat awake though several dusk to dawn performances.

Kathakali artists undergo years of rigorous training even before staging their first public performance. They are put through a punishing schedule which comprises of many 4:00 am mornings of tough body exercises and several facial movements involving the eyes, cheeks, nose, jaws, and the mouth. During their training period there are over 600 intricate mudras (hand gestures) and 9 rasas (emotions) that the artists have to master.

Maaneesha Panicker

Written by Maneesha Panicker with inputs from Sanjay Sivadas and Radha Gomaty.

Photos by Jyotika Jain.

Jyotika Jain is a photographer based in Mumbai, India. Her photographic odyssey began with a project in which she documented the ladies special trains/compartments of the local trains in Mumbai. She was the still photographer for an independent film, Dhobi Ghat (Mumbai Diaries). She is currently documenting the dying Jewish community of India.