Kathakali, the Classic Dance Theatre of Kerala

Dance of Kerala – Dance of Gods

When we think about the dance of Kerala we think of Kathakali. Kathakali is the classical dance-drama of the state of Kerala in Southern India. It’s a unique type of art among the dance forms of India and it’s certainly one of the most magnificent and the most important artistic traditions of India. This highly stylized theatre has more than 50 versions and which represents confrontations between gods and demons. This is a true reflection of an ancient theatrical tradition of unique values of elite culture, a tradition that is perceived as visual poetry and in which every performance is a celebration.

This Theatrical tradition backs before the first century AD. The drama is believed to be a gift from the gods and the three main gods of the Indian Trinity involved in its creation and development; Brahma created the art of drama, Shiva gave it the element of dance and Vishnu developed its presentation. The first drama performed was of a war between gods and demons, representing the forces of good and evil. The Kathakali stage features the Indian mythology and continues to play a role in the eternal struggle between “Sat” and “Asat”, good and evil. Gods and demons, kings and heroes, can visit the earth again and again in all their glory.

The text of the Kathakali, the dance of Kerala, is narrated by two storytellers which have a very important role in the Kathakali performance where recitation and a romantic plot are basic components of it. The absence of speech liberates the Kathakali actor from the restrictions of the spoken word and allows him to enjoy total freedom of acting and miming. The actor, without a word, translates the recited songs in forms of “mudras”. The mudras are symbolic hand gestures that represent the alphabet of the Kathakali language. There are 24 basic mudras that when used in different combinations, multiply into 700 “words “that represent ideas, objects, actions, and emotions. The hand movements are accompanied by rolling eye movements and facial expressions. Throughout the performance, the actor’s body is fully alert, agile and responsive. In Kathakali every muscle moved can symbol a gesture and there for the actor is required to perfect total control over his body.

Only men are allowed to be Kathakali actors. The training starts at the age of ten and the student stay with his guru for seven or eight years in order to learn from him how to master the basic techniques

When watching Kathakali for the first time, the most remarkable aspect is indeed the costumes, the ornaments, and the facial makeup. Since the characters are taken from Hindu Mythology, the performance includes many characters such as gods, nobility, demons, forest-dwellers, legendary birds and snakes, monsters, women, servants and Brahmins. The makeup signifies the classification of characters. Both the makeup and dressing techniques is a rich art in itself that has been passed on from father to son for generations in very specific families. These artists are professionals and experts in this field and spend hours before each event to get the actors ready for the performance.

In the dance of Kerala, Only men are allowed to be Kathakali actors. The training starts at the age of ten and the student stays with his guru for seven or eight years to learn from him how to master the basic techniques. The dance methods are taught and applied to the student using massage techniques, exercises, and technical training which all led to unusual flexibility of the body. Through these methods, the actor achieves great capability and control over his eyes and body muscle and when combined with the flexibility of his fingers creates a vast ‘toolbox’ of moves and expressions. In the past Kathakali, the theatre was performed traditionally in courtyards of temples close to the spectators. The performance lasted for hours and was all outdoors in the open air. Today, the show is much shorter and is performed inside theatres and on stages to adjust to the demands of the modern world and the tourist industry. This beautiful tradition needs to adapt to make it relevant in modern times but without losing its original roots.

About Peter Rhody

"Loving India is a passion of mine. I have enjoyed several long journeys to all corners of the sub-continent, completed my B.A and M.A in Asian studies, studied languages such as Hindi, Urdu, and Sanskrit, written on the Hari Krishna movement, lectured on Indian culture and history in university, advised others on their trips to India all the while preparing my next visit to India. There are so many places in India I love and want to always go back to but my favorite destination has to be the holy city of Varanasi. Here you can feel the living pulse and the beating heart of the center of religious India with its overwhelming spirituality and history and just for being a true microcosm of India itself "

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