There is no other theater form which imposes a world of illusion the way Kathakali does. Grandeur unparalleled, befittingly non-worldly, stylization ultimate, drama evocative and magically surrealistic, Kathakali is the wonder of theater. Often designated as total theater, Kathakali offers more than theatrics. It encompasses artistry of painting and metafiction narrative with touches of metaphysical presentation. Synthetic in its origin, but cleverly masked by intelligent craft, Kathakali has the essentials of modernity in technique and delivery.
Kathakali has the appeal and visual attributes of an ancient art but this is an illusion. This is generated for the re-creation of mythological time- space ambiance and to let the audience slip to a world of apparition. Kathakali is not ancient, being evolved during Shakespeare’s time. Ramanattam, the early form of Kathakali sprouted in the 1600 and soon contagiously spread over the land and started its traverse to the north, to be reformed and refreshed as a rather new art form. The name Kathakali was not yet coined and the production was referred to as a simple term, “aaTTam”. It was in the late 1700s that Kathakali assumed the structure, form and style converging closely with the art as we know it today. By the 1800s concerted effort of genius choreographers reshaped Kathakali embellishing it in a novel form and finish to resemble the modern day Kathakali. The convincing antiquity and appeal of a bygone era are just an illusion for an art form of less than 300 years.
The ground for a new theater form like Ramanattam was construed as a result of tumultuous social cataclysms of fifteenth and sixteenth century Kerala. The over pervasive Bhakthi (devotion) movement broke loose the shackles of caste hierarchy and class enforcement letting the divine sanctity of the sacred texts attainable to the common man. Literary contributions of stalwarts like Ezhuththachchan accelerated this democratization of knowledge which cleared path for vehicles of liberation. The increasing presence of Europeans- especially the Portuguese -and the establishment of the printing press and such social anomalies had distinctly altered the spirits of the age. Historically art and literature thrive in conditions of social flux, as an expression of rebellion. Mural paintings, innovations in Krishnanattam, advent of stylized musicals based on Bible stories- chaviTTunaaTakam- all are examples of society’s earnest endeavors to meet challenges, generated externally and from within. An aspiration for a new theater led to compelling desire which had an element of integration as essential ingredient- dance, music, drama, elaborate and vivid costumes all being the assemblage. The new born Ramanattam was essentially a ‘Soodra art’, an art for non-Brahmins. The myth that Ramanattam originated as a challenge to Krishnanattam may have a pinch of truth in it.
Despite having a pan-Indian base deeply rooted in Natyasasthram, aaattam often departed from classical arts. This ensued from compromises that had to be made as a result of superimposing this pan-Indian base on a pan-Kerala base. Kathakali or aattam was thus an emphatic declaration of a new art that defied even some of the rules enshrined in Natysasthram. While Natysasthram instructs not to enact scenes of murder, delivery and bloody bodies, Kathakali took the liberty of portraying all these if the situation demanded. The element of comedy and caricature was almost avoided. Kathakali was powerful enough to establish its individuality in a societal milieu where a strong theater tradition was already running deep. The art liberated itself from the constraints of thick-walled, cloistered theater in the temple premises (Koothampalam) and instead was performed in spartan locale, amidst local people, on stages not having boundaries except for the ones defined imaginatively by the dancers themselves. Kathakali can not be considered as a temple art in its true sense and had negligible Brahminical influence- to the extent that it was rejected by the conservatives and derided by the literati.
From ritual to Art
After its northward journey Ramanattam integrated more of folk/ritual genres, like ‘theyyam’ and ‘thira, popular in Northern Malabar. Performance related infrastructure, method of delivery, song patterns, make up, costume and all other minute aspects of dramatic and dance elements from many of the folk/ritual art were crafted to suit the new aattam. While Ramanattam had a spiritual or devotional intent i. e., propitiation of Rama, it soon adapted stories from Mahabharatham and glorifying a deity became none of its objective, ambition or purpose. Acting assumed analytical method with focus on its subtleties constituting a major step in this revolutionary advancement. Rituals were limited to the beginning of the performance which was mainly paying obeisance to the powers or spirits of the theater rather in an abstract sense.
Aattam was safely placed in between Brahmincal bhakthi art and folk rituals of the common man. Patrons of Kathakali were rulers or kings. Even in these stories of valor, heroism or gallantry the villains or antiheroes claimed dominance, the reason being that relief from the ritual or devotional constraints provided dramatic, stylistic and conceptual freedom. Anti- hero characters could develop and acquire differences and departures from the mythology which created them, dramatic superiority being placed on them compared to their heroes. Anti heroes or villains like Duryodhana, Ravana or Narakasura of mythology thus fall squarely on the same character in Kathakali. An element of rebellion could be perceived in this, a blend of aesthetic and socio-political factors favoring this re-interpretation.
Passion for Fusion
Kathakali assimilated many of local ritual performances without subjugating to any one of them or losing its own identity. Thus Kathakali embodied the confluence of performance genres and qualified for the prime most example of fusion dance in the history Indian performing arts. The trend of fusion in dance or music often arises as meeting an inner challenge to create novelty from within, where multitudes of techniques, rendering and visual projection are easily available. Fusion in dance or music involves a delicate balancing act-while declaring its freedom from any one tradition, it also maintains a crucial element of familiarity, helping to soften the edges of its incomprehensible sources. Kathakali assimilated not only elements of dance and drama but music and musical instruments profusely. These were detached from their original context to assume the distinctiveness of a Kathakali identity.
The core of stylization and technique in Kathakali dance was provided by martial art ‘KaLarippayat’ which also provided the essential body suppleness and rigor. Kalari or gymnastic training ground for both martial art and Kathakali shared physical space creating a close bond between the two.Kathakali and kalarippayat demanded demanded a finely tuned body self -responding to an inner rhythm. Moreover, Kalarippayat provided frame and structure for body movement over which other ritual dances were wrapped. Velakali another offshoot of martial art with emphasis on dance also influenced Kathakali choreography. Another martial dance from which Kathakali borrowed heavily is Patayani. Many of the dance syllables, rhythmic patterns (thaaLam) and color designs for make up also are adapted from paTayaNi. Mutiyet, a Kali cult based ritual contributed the essential costume designs and jewelry patterns to Kathakali and above all, many of the kalaasams (units of dance) were straight contributions. The crucial contribution of mutiyett is the chenTa a highly resonant, pure Dravidian drum the effective use of which revolutionized Kathakali in diverse ways. The style and modes of music and its rendering also could be traced to mutiyet. Thira and theyyam generously contributed style and patterns for costumes and jewelry and to a certain extent to many of the dance movements, theeyaatt, a ritual for appeasing fertility goddess substantially was relied on for adapting facial make up colors, especially green, and for crowns and head gears along with a prototype for the buffy, expanded ‘skirt’. For the softer and gentler movements of feminine characters a prototype of mohiniyattam was effectively utilized while gandharvan paatt, another fertility ritual lent details of facial make up, certain costume patterns and definitive motifs for some of the gory characters. For individual, specialty characters like swan or bird, garudan thookkam provided appropriate movement patterns and costumes. Nothing was too trivial or diminutive for Kathakali to accept.
Perhaps the the inner soul element was reborn as Kathakali from one performing art-kooTiyaattam. The adaptation of essentials of kooTiyaattam lifted Kathakali to newer heights in formative structure, aesthetic profoundness and intrinsic and extrinsic attributes. Although Kathakali became more than a glorified extension of kooTiyaattam, it liberally integrated several crucial elements such as mudras (meaningful hand gestures), the technique to elaborate and communicate the meaning of a sung portion, presentation and staging , detail-oriented acting, basic costume stylization are a few to be listed. The method of “pakarnnaattam” or transition of characters by the very same actor was adapted to Kathakali with elaborate modification. An ultimate synthetic period ensued in early 1800s when the master choreographer KaplingaaT Nampoothiri revolutionized Kathakali by integrating and elaborating more mimetic, dramatic and dance elements of Kootiyattam. Progression in integrating music and an ensemble of instruments bestowed another dimension to the theater, Kathakali music emerging as an independent genus. The instruments, mainly chenTa and maddaLam provided more than just accentuation to rhythmic syllables; they were used to provide subtle sound effects operating in unison with the mudras. The music also could bear the tag of fusion since it was evolved by blending the native sopanam and the classical karnatic styles. This revolutionary impact cleared the way for a wider acceptance of Kathakali as a modern performing art, its denial by Brahmin community notwithstanding any more.
Kathakali maintained a convention of free assimilation from ethnic and classical art. This unbolted outlook was strength secured, and contributed to its liberty and sovereignty, eventually permitting boundless experimentation in dramaturgy. It was emphatically established that the actor and the character he plays are separate and distant and the actor/dancer has to confine his self not to ‘enter’ into the character’s self. This is in contrast to the dramatic rules in realistic acting modes as in movies and conventional theater. As often an interlude of dance is interspersed between segments of acting, the actor sheds the character’s self and becomes a pure dancer. This enables the audience to understand intellectually the character’s moods and keep an emotional distance which further enhances the visualized dimensions of the character. Modern theater established this concept in 1930s when Bertolt Brecht employed his “alienation theory” in his plays. Kathakali had utilized this alienation technique extensively in the sense that one character transcends to another momentarily and returns to the previous one. Brechtian convictions of an “open” stage also were in vogue in Kathakali centuaries before it was introduced in Western theater. In his many of experimentations Brecht made attempts to dissolve the boundary between the stage and the audience where the story transcends into the spectator’s physical self. Kathakali had this concept effectively utilized in two ways. One is by the utilization of a “live” and superbly mobile curtain which determinately constructs time/space barrier. The characters themselves can operate this curtain to break this barrier and enter the world of the spectator. The second is the ‘open’ concept of stage as by folk/ritual convention where the audience is at the same physical level as with the actor/dancer so that the illusory world creates a feeling of nearness. Kathakali stage lacks well demarcated boundaries and some of the scenes, mostly climatic, descend and transgress to the physical world of the audience. Since the element of realism is totally banished at the outset the illusory impression is never allowed to get away and disappear. At the same time this enables to emphasize and accentuate the verity that the perceived illusion is in fact real.
Kathakali continues to transcend ideas of traditional Indian dance by adapting and evolving into an even more mosaic of art forms. The fusion qualities and roots of Kathakali enable the artistic medium to be universal and truly timeless.