India's Kathakali dance-drama unfolds colors of Kerala in Egypt

Ati Metwaly , Saturday 13 Aug 2016

In the last decade the Egyptian audience has seen much from India – but not Kathakali dance-drama. Finally, this visually captivating art form was performed in Egypt's four cities last week

Kathakali troupe performs at Bibliotheca Alexandrina on 1 Aug 2016 (Photo: Butheina Shalan‎)

Of all the classical, traditional and contemporary art forms coming from India, Kathakali is probably the most visually striking. This captivating art form blends theatre, dance and pantomime, combining devotion with culture.

It is best described as a dance-drama, manifested through the evocative language of mudras (hand gestures), navarasam (facial expressions), music, elaborate costumes and expressive mask-like makeup where each colour carries a symbolic meaning.

Kathakali is one of the most eminent celebrations of the Natya Shastra (The Science of Acting), a two-thousand-year-old Sanskrit text attributed to Bharatha Muni; a theoretical treatise, the Natya Shastra has became an academic source for all performing arts.

In the last decade the Egyptian audience has seen much from India – but not Kathakali.

Last week the accomplished Kathakali artist Kottakkal Rajumohan led nine performers across four cities, starting with the Bibliotheca Alexandrina on 1 August, moving on to Port Said on 3 August, Ismailia on 4 August and culminating in Cairo on 6 August.

The performance included two stories adapted from the epic the Srimad Bhagavata: the first, Pootanamoksham, is an episode from the major Hindu deity Krishna’s childhood; in the second, Santanagopalam, a Brahmin’s wife tragically gives birth to nine stillborn babies.

Kathakali troupe performs at Bibliotheca Alexandrina on 1 Aug 2016 (Photo: Butheina Shalan‎)

Kathakali, the dance-drama

Katha means a story or a tale while kali means a drama or a play; Kathakali is the process of telling stories through dance-drama.

The beauty of Kathakali is rooted in the land and culture of the tropical state of Kerala in south India. Prior to the emergence of Kathakali in the 17th century, Kerala had already had a variety of ritual folk art forms, many of which were restricted to temples and courts or performed around them during the festivities.

Kathakali was born of the political rivalry of two 17th-century Kerala chieftains, the Zamorin of Kozhikode (or Calicut) and the Raja of Kottarakkara, who through their respective reigns became competitors in displaying the best art in the country.

The Raja of Kottarakkara initiated Raamanaattam, an art form based on enactment of familiar stories drawn from the Malayalam texts, in a language understood by everyone which – unlike Zamorin’s Krishnattam, written in Sanskrit, “the language of gods” – gained immediate popularity.

Raamanaattam soon turned into what we know today as Kathakali. Though Kathakali’s final structure did not crystallise until the 18th century, making it a very young phenomenon in Indian terms, it is deeply rooted in two millennia of Indian culture.

Kathakali troupe performs at Bibliotheca Alexandrina on 1 Aug 2016 (Photo: Butheina Shalan‎)

“In India, Kathakali is often performed inside or around the temples. Traditionally, the performance consists of six consecutive stories or scenes, each lasting up to three hours. The performance which begins in the late afternoon continues throughout the whole night. It is like a long ritual which ends only in the morning,” Kottakkal Rajumohan explains.

He adds that since in recent years Kathakali went beyond Kerala its duration has had to be adapted to the international viewers’ expectations and their ability to follow a show which, despite including many well understood mudras, is permeated with symbolism: gestures, facial expressions, costumes and makeup.

Among the many skills of contemporary Indian artists, however, is the ability to reach out to a wide audience without jeopardising core artistic values. It is thanks to this philosophy that we can enjoy Kathakali in Egypt – and across the world. Drawn from the two great Sanskrit epics, the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, Kathakali proves widely adaptable.

“Today, Kathakali performers find inspiration in the boundless repertoire of international literature,” Rajumohan comments, giving the example of Shakespeare’s Othello which his troupe performed back in 2014 to the audience’s and critics’ acclaim, and other works by the Bard in which characters and actions were translated to mudras and navarasam.

Following the tradition, Kathakali performers are men – even though in the recent years women started joining in troupes – and they depict both male and female characters.

During our meeting Rajumohan demonstrated the Indian dramatic theory as presented through navarasam: in a highly stylised technique his face shifted from expressing joy, love and compassion to fear, disgust, wonder, among other core emotions. “This set of face expressions is created mainly with movements of the eyes and cheeks, while the makeup and colours add to the symbolism,” he explains.

It takes several years for the performers to master the vocabulary of this gestural language. Young boys usually start their education at the age of 12 when their body has reached a suitable stage of development; they learn for a decade or more before being able to stand on stage. The Kathakali education process involves a lot of physical exercise as well as intensive dance training and discipline, all of which aim to develop the body’s flexibility. Frequent oil massages, in addition, help the students to better control each muscle and its movements.

Kathakali troupe performs at Bibliotheca Alexandrina on 1 Aug 2016 (Photo: Butheina Shalan‎)

Rajumohan came to Egypt with a troupe that consists of three actors, three percussion players, two musicians who sing some of the dialogue as well as playing instruments and one makeup artist.

Rajumohan explains that the makeup process, which takes up to four hours prior to each performance, includes applying the colours drawn from stones and natural powders, and attaching a beard made of rice paste to the chin. The colours vary depending on the character and symbolism, and the beards too have different shapes and hues. The vibrant costumes in which the actors move so easily across the stage can actually weigh up to 20 kilogrammes.

It is clear that nothing is easy in the life of a professional Kathakali performer, whether they are doing shows that last all night back in Kerala or travelling halfway across the world for an international performance.

Rajumohan says that the growing competition among the actors-dancers and troupes is creating additional pressure on the performers. Naturally, it takes more than skill and professionalism to reach international acclaim; imagination, creativity and the ability to adapt to global expectations are all key.

But as much as Kathakali’s cultural flexibility is flattering to foreign viewers, some researchers grieve over the increased modernisation of the tradition.

In his PhD dissertation that revolves around the comparison between Kathakali and Kabuki, Thulaseedhara Kurup, a director at India Performing and Research Centre in Bengalore, writes, “The folk rituals and traditional beliefs that they [Indian Kathakali and Japanese Kabuki] are made of are not accepted as widely as before because of the effect of the westernization on the mind of the audience. In the new age audience, lack appropriate or conventional knowledge of our history or the values that these art forms thrive on. This makes them, ignorant to the aesthetic qualities that distinguish classical art from current day innovations. Television, computers and modernized movies have replaced the theatre that has been passed down for generations. This leaves artists of Kabuki, Kathakali and various other cultural art forms unemployed and unable to survive a livelihood in current eras. This made many of the cultural artists seek other forms of employment, thereby leaving the arts as just a hobby or personal interest.”

In this context, Rajumohan and his troupe can consider themselves lucky. Dedicated completely to this art, over the past years, they have literally travelled the world, performing in numerous European countries, in the Americas as well as Korea, Malaysia and elsewhere, enchanting the audiences with the skilfully tailored format they present.

Kathakali troupe performs at Bibliotheca Alexandrina on 1 Aug 2016 (Photo: Butheina Shalan‎)

Since the 1950s, the Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR) has led or supported the promotion of Indian culture, playing an important role in the dynamism spearheaded by the Embassy of India and the Maulana Azad Centre for Indian Culture (MACIC), from yoga classes to India by the Nile.

According to the MACIC acting director Rakesh Kawra, “Each state in India has its own unique food, language, tradition and culture. I hope that through this diversity, this time expressed with Kathakali dance-drama, we have succeeded to entertain the art lovers with the unique traditional art from southern India. This also provided an opportunity for the culturally savvy people of Egypt to know and explore more about India.”

The Kathakali performances, which started out as part of the 14th Bibliotheca Alexandrina International Summer Festival, are one of the two important events from India, the second being a concert by Santoor, an instrumental group, to take place on 5 September at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina followed by performances in Beni Suef and Cairo.  

Kathakali troupe performs at Bibliotheca Alexandrina on 1 Aug 2016 (Photo: Butheina Shalan‎)

This article was first published in Al Ahram Weekly

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