Discovering Kathakali | Part III

Like any performance art, Kathakali has seen its share of innovations over the course of time. A major change that occurred in the middle of the 20th century was the experimentations with non-mythological stories as attakathas. Social dramas with political figures were staged, but failed to catch the imagination of the audiences. In the 1960s, the International Centre for Kathakali, in its attempt to give Kathakali a wider reach, commissioned and produced several adaptations from the Bible. And of course, the Bard’s plays were also adapted into attakathas, including King Lear, Othello, Macbeth, and Hamlet. These performances managed to garner a lot of interest from people, but they also had their fair share of detractors.

Historically, Kathakali training and performance was restricted to the upper-caste Hindu men. But in recent times, once the dance form started being taught in institutions such as Kalamandalam, artists from various backgrounds started training, and have gone on to make their mark. Today, of course, there are even foreign students who make their way to the stateto learn this centuries-old dance-drama.

Another change in Kathakali is the foray of women performers. Traditionally, only men trained to be actor-dancers, so all female characters were also played by men. There were a handful of women who did venture into this male-dominated bastion, such as Kunjumallu Amma, Theeyaduthu Madhavi, Vaireli Meenakshi Amma, and Vanchiyoor Karthyayani Amma. However, most of them had to give up performing once they got married. Among the more recent performers, Chavara Parukutty Amma stands out as one of the few women to have completed over 52 years as a performer. Today there are even all-women Kathakali troupes in Kerala, with the first being formed in 1962. One of the more popular all-women troupes is the Tripunithura Kathakali Kendram Ladies Troupe, formed in 1975. These women perform both the female and male roles. Of course, traditional attakathas all centred on male characters, so many artists feel there’s a need to create new attakathas that can explore more female characters.

Despite Kathakali’s evolution and world-wide recognition, it would appear that the survival of this classical dance-drama is under strain. Although still a revered art form, because of academic and other societal demands, not many are able to pursue it and give it the dedication it requires. Many proponents feel that today’s training techniques do not match up to the traditional standards, and as a result, the quality of performances has suffered. Moreover, the past few decades have seen a dwindling of audience size owing to various reasons. As a result, making a living out of performances alone becomes quite difficult for an artist. Sponsorship and recognition by the State as well as by the community is much needed to continue burning those brass lamps.

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