The Author of the recently released magna-opus on Kathakali Dance-Theatre: A visual narrative of Sacred Indian Mime, KK Gopalakrishnan speaks to us to understand some nitty-gritty’s regarding Kathakali; its past, present and the possible future.
In the Indian Art Scenario, he is a significant source of information/reference for artists, scholars, media and research students including those from foreign countries. He is a well-known writer photographer and a connoisseur specialising in Kerala performing arts traditions, started writing for a host of periodicals like The Indian Express and The Mathrubhumi Weekly (Malayalam) at a very young age. He is the honorary Editorial Associate of Hyderabad based ‘Nartanam Quarterly’, the only English dance journal in India having global readership.
1. Tell us something about your first encounter with a Kathakali performance and how it affected you.
My very first encounter with Kathakali was when I was hardly in two digit age –must be around 1970. My father woke me up around 2 am and took me to the nearby temple to watch the performance. This was as a result of my doubts on Ottanthullal performances that I used to see during the afternoon hours of the nearby temple festival of those days. The play was Kalyanasougandhikam. I realised at the venue, how different Kathakali was from Ottantullal. Here two actors in different costumes performed on the stage, supported by two singers and two drummers behind them. The bare stage, the austere art that transported the audiences to another world – that too by showcasing a well known story – that night sowed in me an abiding interest in classical theatre. I was awestruck. The actors were the then Kathakali stars of northern Kerala, the late Kana Kannan Nair as Bheema and today’s octogenarian Parassini Kunhiraman Nair as Hanuman; that time I hardly thought that both of them were going to be very close to me after several years.
2. What preparations did you undertake before writing a book this exhaustive and detailed?
Several years of watching innumerable performances at various venues across the state and outside, travelling and interacting with masters, earlier readings etc with little intention of writing a book of this sort later were my foundation, I believe. Had I done these with the intention of writing a book on a subject like Kathakali, I am sure it would have been a disaster like the view of a cow tied to a pole. However, it was a task but never tough, except the chart on lineages right from the origin of the art, as I know the subject and the core contents were almost already shaped up in my mind by the time I have decided to write it. Other than my frequent travel schedules and official commitments, a few challenges that I faced were translation/transliteration of some of the significant technical terms and usages into English, cross checking the information, collecting historical photographs and lack of proper documentation of the art by earlier art administrators. Basically I wanted to make it a good reference book too and also a record of some of the significant anecdotes; I think I am successful.commitments, a few challenges that I faced were translation/transliteration of some of the significant technical terms and usages into English, cross checking the information, collecting historical photographs and lack of proper documentation of the art by earlier art administrators. Basically I wanted to make it a good reference book too and also a record of some of the significant anecdotes; I think I am successful.
After reading the book one of the readers just mailed me: “Like all great classical art forms, of performance or otherwise, kathakali too will help a person find ones own dark and well illuminated areas of personal subconscious. This happens on and on. It will continue to live there like rocky imprints. The more you experience them, the more you stay with it. This is true for all classical art forms, whether the tragedies of Sophocles, works of William Shakespeare or the works of Michael Angelo or Leonardo Da Vinci down the line. Another book on this subject, of this refinement, quality, proportion and status may take a long time to come out.”
3. Having watched Kathakali performances for decades and being in close proximity with the performers, tell us a fun greenroom anecdote.
There are many but I am afraid most of it looses its charm when translated from Malayalam and unless one knows the pun and twists of the language. Once a known senior actor was preparing for the role of Sugreeva. He normally does Bali, Sugreeva’s elder brother, as casting goes as per seniority and reputation. An artist senior to him was given the role of Bali. Costumes and facial make-ups are similar to both the roles. That was a time a lady from Europe has been following his performances for some time. She happened to see his Bali the previous night and soon after his performance she collected the chutti (white facial border). After his performance as Sugreeva too on the following night, she collected it and shortly after some time asked him why one small border-edge cut of chutti was less for Sugreeva. After a pause, he replied “Sugreeva is younger brother, so one less”!
I may add you another incidence during a lecture-demonstration at a school. The Kathakali master showed the hand-gesture for lotus and asked the students assembled in front of him to identify it. Almost all of them said ‘flower’, except one boy, who subsequently stood up and said aloud ‘monkey’ to tease the actor. All burst into laugh ignoring the fact that it was worth insulting such an actor of repute invited to the school as a guest. But keeping his calm, the artist reflected to him politely, “my dear, please answer by looking at the hand gesture and not at my face”!
4. You have opined that contemporary Kathakali paints a bleak picture. Please elaborate.
There are several issues many of which are related to the socio-cultural changes in this dynamic society and availability of multitudes of entertainments. All coupled with lack of professional art management and inertia at Governmental level. Perhaps ours is among the few countries in the world having no professional courses in art management or rather not considered it as a stream of knowledge and expertise. As far as a form like Kathakali is concerned it is more complicated considering its training nature and progress of an artist. Better read the last part of the book for an elaborate answer!
5. You have been writing articles about the performing arts in Kerala for the past twenty-five years. What are the significant changes that you’ve observed in the readers’ attitude in this time span?
I may correct it, it is over three decades! Day by day readers for art writing is limited as performing art is not a school level academic subject to inculcate interest in cultural heritage right from younger days. Parents or elders have no time to take their wards to see classical arts performances that are also highly compromised in festival programming. More often than not, artists are concerned only about praising reviews (and pictures) of their own performances. Also the limited periodicals that keep some space for arts mostly carry a program report labeled as review that too within a set page limit, as major space is marked for tinsel world. Only those having sound knowledge in arts, a limited species, are interested in reading analytical art writings. And above all, we are in acute dearth of knowledgeable/competent writers and critics on performing arts. Nevertheless, periodicals like Nartanam (quarterly journal for dance) and Sruti (monthly on Indian performing arts) are still providing yeoman services against all odds despite scant financial resources.
6. In Greek Tragedies, costumes played a very important role for two major reasons a) Absence of proper stage and lighting b) Establish the character. Could you please explain in brief the role of ‘Aaharya Abhinaya’ including the significance offace paint and make up used?
May be like the Greek Tragedies, for Kathakali too, costumes played a very important role due to the absence of proper stage lighting and establishing the character. But there are further significant reasons – Kathakali banked heavily on the facial and costuming structure and nature of the then existing forms, especially Kutiyattam (2000 plus years old Sanskrit theatre) and Teyyam (folklore ritual tradition existent only in Northern Kerala) etc. So perhaps Kutiyattam and Teyyam faced those issues during its formative periods! I don’t know the case with the characters of Greek Tragedies, but in the case of Kathakali the costuming is as per the nature/quality of the characters and hence it is classified into various types. So while characters like Duryodhana, Ravana, Narakasura etc have same facial and attire, characters like Yudhishtir, Bheema, Arjuna, Nala, Rugmangada, Karna etc comes under another type of facial and attire. By just watching a picture, one cannot distinguish the character but only the type. Additionally there were significant refinements and improvements at several stages at the hands of the masters of various periods. To certain extend it still continues, at least for namesake. There were revolutionary changes in the facials and costuming of Kutiyattam during its post 1965 periods, especially between 1965-1980. Ramanattam, the predecessor of Kathakali has taken several elements from Mutiyettu during the Vettam reformation (16-17 C). As per Natyashastra, the ancient Indian treatise on fine arts, costuming (aaaharya abhinaya) is one among the four significant elements of acting; it devoted 208 slokas for aaharya abhinaya. So I think the rationales are further beyond the reasons of Greek Tragedies, absence of proper stage lighting and establishing the character.
The roles of epics need such sort of costuming as it portrays larger than life characters. May I counter it for a fun – now these days we have better stage lighting and the characters of Kathakali are well established in the mind of people who are familiar with it. So, in that case, is it still/always necessary to adhere with the hours-long make up process of Kathakali? Let me also add one thing: to appreciate the real beauty of physical theatre in Kathakali one must watch thecholliyattam (the usual practice without costumes) of Kathakali – watching one cholliyattam of a play enriched with aesthetical and technical elements is more than watching 10 performances of any play! Given a choice, my priority is always the cholliyattam by well trained artists, with due respects to the aaharaya elements of the art. In fact chapter 12 of the book deals in detail with regards to facial drawing/painting and costuming.
7. Before women arrived into the scene, could you please throw some light on female impersonation in Kathakali?
Broadly, the female physical exposition in Indian aesthetic concept is identified as lasya element (feminine grace) and male as tandava(vigorous). In Kutiyattam all female roles, except the role of Shurpanakha, which is handled by men, are donned by women only, that too from a particular community only until 1971 and in temples only as ritual. But in Kathakali predominantly all the actors are men. During its formative stage the actors were Kalarippayattu (martial art of Kerala) warriors who were all men and also the prescription of total body massage for actors for physical fitness and the then social scenario might have restricted women. During the training time, actors are trained in all the technically significant roles. Only at a later stage, as per physical fitness and body features etc, one specialises in various type of roles. That is why absolutely there is no influence of Mohiniyattam, which originated before Kathakali, or other female performance traditions in the exposition of female roles of Kathakali including the attire.
Take the case of Teyyam out of academic interest. The mother concept is highly dominant in the form but all those Teyyams are performed my men with high physical capabilities. (There is only one Teyyam, known as Devakoothu, performed at a particular place in Kerala only by woman from a particular background and connected to a particular family; in a sense it is also not a fully fledged Teyyam.) So in all these forms where men took the female role, the inherent element istandava oriented lasya making this impersonation is more attractive from the point of theatrics; there may be rare exceptions. Whether folk, ritual, traditional, prominent or more prominent (labelled as classical), it is the aesthetics and theatrics that matter.
Probably the first woman who ventured to learn Kathakali (Ramanattam) is believed to be Kartyayani, who lived around the year 1700. Kartyayani was said to be a very tall, rather androgynous looking woman and performed male roles in tadi type. Another woman who features in the history of Kathakali is Vanchiyoor Kartyayani Amma (c. 1875), initiated into Kathakali at a very early age by her father and Kathakali actor Neelakanta Pillai. She started acting at the age of twelve and donned secondary female roles such as Usha (Banayuddham) and Sudheshna
(Keechakavadham). Besotted by her performance, a passionate aficionado of Kathakali, Velu Pillai, married her. And it resulted in her retirement from the art! Before the arrival of these two women into Kathakali, it appears that no woman ventured into and it was total male impersonation.
In the book I have discussed several elements related with it – such as the legendary Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair was hailed as ‘PootanaKrishnan’ during his formative years for the classicism that he portrayed in the role of Pootana (a demoness disguised as a beautiful lady), about Kutamaloor Karnunkaran Nair and Kottakkal Shivaraman (all the late masters). Take the case of today’s lead man in female roles, Margi Vijayakumar now in his mid fifties. By appearance in costume, they all vied with the born beauties of the land.
8. What advice would you give to aspiring writers who want to document the performing arts heritage of India?
Watch more and more performances and class room trainings and interact with artists and masters as much as possible duly avoiding personal, style or aesthetic prejudices, if any. But at the same time be conscious that that at times the artists are both normal and abnormal human beings. One may specialize on a particular form or style, but be open to all sorts of forms and styles. Be very careful of pseudo gurus and impresarios, a serious threat that the tradition of Kutiyattam is glaringly facing today outside the state of Kerala. It is very important to imbibe the culture first to save from being superficial. And if focusing on Kathakali, read my book, as point no. 1 in this regard!
‘Kathakali Dance-Theatre: A visual narrative of Sacred Indian Mime’ was reviewed in the UK by the renowned scholar and writer on Indian arts Mr Reginald Massey as “an iconic study” (Confluence, August 2016) and the Times of India reviewed it as “An epic for everyman – a purist manages to make Kathakali’s abstractions accessible to the lay leader,” among others. It is now available in all leading bookstores.