The Kathakali Experience

Disclaimer: I am not a dancer. 

But dance and drama makes a huge part of what I am. 


My father was a very religious person and would spend a lot of time
visiting temples. I think I have got my artistic trait from him. I have watched
him silently being drawn towards characters during temple performances and
stage dramas. Sunday afternoons were spent listening to old Malayalam songs. He
was very fond of dramatic dances of Kerala like Thayyam, Kathakali etc. And if
there would be such a performance in the Krishna temple near our house, he
would not miss it. As a child, I was not that keen to watch them. To say the
least, I found it boring. But as I grew and began to write, listen to varied
music, dance/drama was something that began to touch my soul. One of the many
reasons I have loved Indian dance forms is because of the intricate make up and
costume. Of all the dances, Kathakali stands out in terms of the drama,
costume, eye movements, leg stands, and ofcourse make up. It had always fancied
and made me curious about how exactly is such a heavy costume worn. I could
finally quench my thirst when I went to Thekaddy. We grabbed the opportunity to
visit the Mudra Kathakali Centre. 
The precursor to the actual performance was watching the make up and
wearing of costume. We were the first ones to enter the stage where the artist
was decking up. Costumes are very large and heavy. I took the opportunity to
speak to the dancer too. I specifically asked him whether he felt comfortable.
The artist very sweetly said, “Yes, now I am. Young children get intimidated
by the richness and heaviness of the costumes, but by the time multiple
performances are done, they get used to it. Moreover we undergo full body
abhyangams every year to increase and maintain stamina and power.”
Yes, Kathakali is not for the faint- hearted or bodied.

There are several kinds of costumes. These are: Sathwika (the hero),
Kathi (the villain), Minukku (females), and Thatti. This is exactly why
Kathakali is so dramatic. If you ask me, the characters of Kathi and Minukku is
what catches my eye every time.  Of all the Navarasa, the positives ones
are relatively easier to understand and relate. But the feelings of lust,
jealousy, anger, disgust can be quite a upheaval task. 
Just before the actual performance, Kalamandalam Vishu Das
displayed the basic eye movements, facial expressions to project the
Navarasas. 

Narakasuravadham is a very famous dance piece that is shown in Kathakali
performances. Maharaja Karthika Tirunal (1724-1798) of erstwhile Travancore is
in the forefront of Kathakali play-wrights who brought majestic ‘kathi’
(depicting shades of negative traits) characters, with all their magnificence
to the centre stage. His ‘Narakasuravadham’ (The slaying of the demon
Naraka), co-authored, as per general belief, by his famous nephew Aswati
Tirunal (1756 -1794), handles one of the episodes of Lord Krishna’s great
victories. Traditionally, this performance is 6 – 7 hours long and
takes place in temples. But as a stage performance, many a times portions of
this entire dance drama is performed. One of such acclaimed portions is where
Nakrathundi is mutilated by Jayanta.  
The basic story being: Naraka grew up to be the unrivalled ruler of
the demon kingdom. His maid servant Nakratundi captures damsels to gift them to
the king. On her way home, she beholds Jayanta, the handsome son of Indra. She
approaches him in the guise of Lalitha and tries to woo him in vain.
The disappointed Nakratundi assumes her real form and character and in
the ensuing battle, she is mutilated by Jayanta. 

Kalamandalam Vishu Das
played the character of Nakrathundi. 

MESMERISED!
This is the only word I can come up with. The best part of the entire
experience was my kids being absolutely engrossed in the performance. I don’t
think they had ever seen anything something so spectacular. 

Photo courtesy: Manoj Kuruvanthody