Monday, April 27, 2009

If you've ever been to a Kathakali performance you will know. Its a complete trip for adrenaline junkies. The mesmerising and rhythmic music, the riveting colourful costume of the artist, his quicksilver expressions, and expressive hand and feet movements, will ensure one of the most entertaining experiences & if you understand it, it will move you like few other things can. And god help you if you happen to be watching a particularly dramatic story, be prepared to actually get scared when the villian appears. Of all the many classical dance forms that India has, Kathakali has to be the most dramatic. And once you've seen a performance, be ensured that the music and the images will linger in your head for at least a few days to come if not a lifetime.

Kathakali is a highly stylised classical Indian dance-drama noted for its attractive make-up of characters, their elaborate costumes, detailed gestures and well-defined body movements presented in tune with the anchor playback music and complementary percussion. It originated in the country's southern state of Kerala during the 16th century AD, approximately between 1555 and 1605, and has been updated over the years with improved looks, refined gestures and added themes besides more ornate singing and precise drumming. Read more here.
The stories and characters are from Hindu Mythology, mostly the Ramayana & Mahabharata. The protagonist 'Krishna' mostly has a green face and sometimes a blue face too.
The anti hero's face has a red streak across it.

When the performance starts, you first hear the music and then you see this satin curtain, which quivers and shimmers in the lamp light & suddenly the character appears from behind it. Its really such fun. My understanding of Malayalam is purely functional & understanding poetic verses is difficult, even so, the whole performance is such a treat.
The character on the right is 'krishna' with peacock feathers on his head dress & flute in hand.
Traditionally, a Kathakali performance is usually conducted at night and ends in early morning. Nowadays it isn't difficult to see performances as short as three hours or even lesser. Kathakali is usually performed in front of the huge Kalivilakku (kali meaning dance; vilakku meaning lamp) with its thick wick sunk neck deep in coconut oil.
The language of the songs used for Kathakali is Manipravalam(a mixture of Sanskrit and Malayalam). Even though most of the songs are set in ragas based on the microtone-heavy Carnatic music, there is a distinct style of plain-note rendition, which is known as the Sopanam style. This typically Kerala style of rendition takes its roots from the temple songs which used to be sung (continues even now at several temples) at the time when Kathakali was born.
The women charachters in Kathakali used to be played by men , but these days thats not the case. I had a friend (a girl) who learnt Kathakali for many years. But it is still not the norm.

One of the most interesting aspects of Kathakali is its elaborate make-up code. Most often, the make-up can be classified into five basic sets namely Pachcha, Kathi, Kari, Thaadi, and Minukku. The differences between these sets lie in the predominant colours that are applied on the face. Pachcha (meaning green) has green as the dominant colour and is used to portray noble male characters who are said to have a mixture of "Satvik" (pious) and "Rajasik" (kingly) nature.
Rajasik characters having an evil streak ("tamasic"= evil) -- all the same they are anti-heroes in the play (such as the demon king Ravana) -- and portrayed with streaks of red in a green-painted face. Excessively evil characters such as demons (totally tamasic) have a predominantly red make-up and a red beard.
The make up takes many hours to put on.
And sometimes the artists lie down (and even take a nap) when the makeup is applied.
Kathakali dolls are a popular souvenir & readily available across Kerala.

I was searching for images & stumbled on this talent. Sandeep Menon who currently studying Entertainment Design at the Art Center College of Design (somewhere in the US I presume) made these charachter designs based on Kathakali. Kathakali meets animation- what an exciting combination.
Do click on the images to see how neat these illustrations are.
And even more exciting- he has taken it further and created and ancient Indian city using Kathakali masks as reference.
So city gates are like walking into the huge masks- through the mouth- super cool!

And for anyone who is interested, I found this beautiful illustration of Indian dance hand mudras.
Image credits: Kiran Photography, Captain Nidhish and Kasugai Sean
And to see some truly stunning images of Kathakali visit: Thomas Travel Photography on flickr.

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