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Keralan ritual theatre

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Among the most magical experiences a visitor to Kerala can have is to witness one of the innumerable ancient drama rituals that play such an important and unique role in the cultural life of the region. Kathakali is the best known; other less publicised forms, which clearly influenced its development, include the classical Sanskrit kudiyattam.

Many Keralan forms share broad characteristics. A prime aim of each performer is to transform the mundane to the world of gods and demons; his preparation is highly ritualized, involving other-worldly costume and mask-like make-up. In kathakali and kudiyattam, this preparation is a rigorously codified part of the classical tradition. One-off performances of various ritual types take place throughout the state, building up to fever pitch during April and May before pausing for the monsoon (June–Aug). Finding out about such events requires a little perseverance, but it’s well worth the effort; enquire at tourist offices, or buy a Malayalam daily paper such as the Malayalam Manorama and ask someone to check the listings for temple festivals, where most of the action invariably takes place. Tourist kathakali is staged daily in Kochi but to find authentic performances, contact performing arts schools such as Thiruvananthapuram’s Margi and Cheruthuruthy’s Kerala Kalamandalam; kudiyattam artists work at both, as well as at Natana Kairali at Irinjalakuda (accessible from Thrissur).

Kathakali

Mrinalini Sarabhai, classical dancer

Here is the tradition of the trance dancers, here is the absolute demand of the subjugation of body to spirit, here is the realization of the cosmic transformation of human into divine.

The image of a kathakali actor in a magnificent costume with extraordinary make-up and a huge gold crown has become Kerala’s trademark. Traditional performances, of which there are still many, usually take place on open ground outside a temple, beginning at 10pm and lasting until dawn, illuminated by the flickers of a large brass oil lamp centre-stage. Virtually nothing about kathakali is naturalistic, because it depicts the world of gods and demons; both the male and female roles are played by men.

Standing at the back of the stage, two musicians play driving rhythms, one on a bronze gong, the other on heavy bell-metal cymbals; they also sing the dialogue. Actors appear and disappear from behind a hand-held curtain and never utter a sound, save the odd strange cry. Learning the elaborate hand gestures, facial expressions and choreographed movements, as articulate and precise as any sign language, requires rigorous training which can begin at the age of eight and last ten years. At least two more drummers stand left of the stage; one plays the upright chenda with slender curved sticks, the other plays the maddalam, a horizontal barrel-shaped hand drum. When a female character is “speaking”, the chenda is replaced by the hourglass-shaped ettaka, a “talking drum” on which melodies can be played. The drummers keep their eyes on the actors, whose every gesture is reinforced by their sound, from the gentlest embrace to the gory disembowelling of an enemy.

Although it bears the unmistakable influences of kudiyattam and indigenous folk rituals, kathakali, literally “story-play”, is thought to have crystallized into a distinct theatre form during the seventeenth century. The plays are based on three major sources: the Hindu epics the Mahabharata, Ramayana and the Bhagavata Purana. While the stories are ostensibly about god-heroes such as Rama and Krishna, the most popular characters are those that give the most scope to the actors – the villainous, fanged, red-and-black-faced katti (“knife”) anti-heroes; these types, such as the kings Ravana and Duryodhana, are dominated by lust, greed, envy and violence. David Bolland’s Guide to Kathakali, widely available in Kerala, gives invaluable scene-by-scene summaries of the most popular plays and explains in simple language a lot more besides.

When attending a performance, arrive early to get your bearings before it gets dark, even though the first play will not begin much before 10pm. (Quiet) members of the audience are welcome to visit the dressing room before and during the performance. The colour and design of the mask-like make-up, which specialist artists take several hours to apply, reveal the character’s personality. The word pacha means both “green” and “pure”; a green-faced pacha character is thus a noble human or god. Red signifies rajas, passion and aggression, black denotes tamas, darkness and negativity, while white is sattvik, light and intellect. Once the make-up is completed, elaborate wide skirts are tied to the waist, and ornaments of silver and gold are added. Silver talons are fitted to the left hand. The transformation is complete with a final prayer and the donning of waist-length wig and crown. Visitors new to kathakali will almost undoubtedly get bored during such long programmes, parts of which are very slow indeed. If you’re at a village performance, you may not always find accommodation, so you can’t leave during the night. Be prepared to sit on the ground for hours, and bring some warm clothes. Half the fun is staying up all night to witness, just as the dawn light appears, the gruesome disembowelling of a villain or a demon asura.

Kudiyattam

Three families of the Chakyar caste and a few outsiders perform the Sanskrit drama kudiyattam, the oldest continually performed theatre-form in the world. Until recently it was only performed inside temples and then only in front of the uppermost castes. Visually it is very similar to its offspring, kathakali, but its atmosphere is infinitely more archaic. The actors, eloquent in sign language and symbolic movement, speak in the compelling intonation of the local brahmins’ Vedic chant, unchanged since 1500 BC.

A single act of a kudiyattam play can require ten full nights; the entire play takes forty. A great actor, in full command of the subtleties of expression through gestures, can take half an hour to do such a simple thing as murder a demon, berate the audience, or simply describe a leaf fall to the ground. Unlike kathakali, kudiyattam includes comic characters and plays. The ubiquitous Vidushaka, narrator and clown, is something of a court jester, and traditionally has held the right to criticize openly the highest in the land without fear of retribution.

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