Lowering the Tirasseela:
Every Kathakali performance begins with the tirasseela being lowered. The word tira means ‘waves’ and seela means ‘cloth’. The tirasseela is a piece of fabric held on the stage by two men on either end to conceal the actor-dancers from the audience before a performance begins, and is akin to a curtain used for a stage. However, unlike other performance arts where the curtains are raised, in a Kathakali performance, the tirasseela, or the hand-held curtain, is lowered. In his book Kathakali—A Practitioner’s Perspective, renowned Kathakali maestro Sadanam P. V. Balakrishnan offers this intriguing anecdote as a possible reason behind this practice: Kottayam Thampuran, the man credited with developing Kathakali, once had a vision as he sat on the edge of a pond. He envisioned Kathakali characters emerging out of the ripples of the water, clad in resplendent costumes and jewellery. So at the beginning of a performance, when the tiraseela is lowered, the characters emerge from behind, as though they are emerging from water, just like how Kottayam Thampuran had seen in his vision.
The story also goes on to say that Kottayam Thampuran only saw the characters from their waist upward, with the lower halves being under the water. He only saw the upper garments, which were vibrant with beautiful gold and silver jewellery. This is reflected in how he designed the costumes for all the characters—the actor-dancer’s upper half is resplendent while the lower half is relatively simple, with just a plain umbrella-shaped skirt devoid of any embellishments.
Aharya abhinaya refers to the art of expressing a character through makeup and costumes. Needless to say, Kathakali is visually striking. I remember, as a child, being enthralled by the spectacle of the masks, the colourful makeup, the attractive headgear and the elaborate costumes. To any first-timer, the visual impact of a Kathakali performance is probably the most alluring thing about it. Many aspects of Kathakali’s makeup and costume have been inherited from the indigenous performing and ritual arts of Kerala, such as Theyyam, Mutiyettu and Kootiyattam.
What is interesting is the role makeup plays in differentiating the characters in a performance. In Kathakali, the characters are classified according to their nature or inner qualities. So the makeup will reveal whether the actor-dancer is playing a virtuous character, a romantic character, a demonic character, and so on. For instance, if a performer’s face is painted green, it means that he is portraying a virtuous, pious or noble character. So the Pandavas, Krishna and Rama will be paccha (‘green’ in Malayalam) characters. A paccha makeup will include elongated eyes, bright red lips and a white chutti that borders the face. Adding to the drama is the bloodshot eyes of the actor-dancer, achieved by inserting the dried ovules of the chunda plant into each eye. (Details of this procedure are sure to make some people a little squeamish.)
The literature of Kathakali is known as attakatha. Attam translates to ‘dance’ and katha to ‘story’. Attakathas are plays based on Indian epics and Puranic stories. Close to 400 attakathas still exist today and date as far back as the mid-17th century. One of the most highly-rated attakathas is Nala Charitam by Unnayi Varrier. It is the love story of Nala and Damayanthi, two characters from the Mahabharata. A few other noted attakathas are Kalyanasougandhikam, Kirmira Vadam and Duryodana Vadham. What is remarkable is the language in which the attakathas were penned: a hybrid of Sanskrit and Malayalam, known as Manipravalam. It was developed by the elite members of Kerala society and was the common medium for early attakathas.
The central theme of most attakathas, good triumphing over evil, is woven around tales of love, revenge, jealousy and moral dilemmas. To the uninitiated, watching a Kathakali drama is a little like watching a movie, except that one needs to understand the stylised movements and nuances of the codes of the performance. But it is these stylisations and nuances of Kathakali that gives its rasika a dreamlike experience.
Despite the grandiosity in makeup and costume, there is a minimalism in Kathakali with its bare sets and sparse use of props. This possibly brings a closer connect between the actor and the rasikas, as they become completely consumed by the artist’s abhinaya.