Kerala – at the southern most tip of India – is defined by its serene landscapes and tranquil backwaters dotted with ancient temples, synagogues and churches. Little wonder they call it ‘God’s own country’.
As the sun goes down, drums beckon devotees to the nearby temple. The all-night festival is resplendent with over a thousand lamps, elephants and a 250 member orchestra.
The festival peaks in a midnight performance of kathakali – the traditional, temple dance-drama from Kerala. Kathakali literally means ‘story-play’ in the local language. This stylised art form originated 450 years ago, around the time Shakespeare was writing his plays in Europe.
Stories come from traditional oral texts such as the Mahabharata and the Ramayana – a Hindu epic featuring the struggles and adventures of Lord Rama.
Shri Fact Padmanabhan, a senior Kathakali artist explained the art form: “Kathakali is defined by detailed gestures and facial expressions, percussion and music, painted masks, costumes and make up. What makes it especially distinctive is that the performers never speak but use only hand gestures and various bodily expressions.”
These expressions include humour, compassion, valour, anger and fear.
“Preparations for the kathakali performance begin hours before the curtains go up, when the make-up artists silently prepare the colours and costumes. Colours are obtained exclusively from natural substances and herbs,” Shri Fact Padmanabhan said.
He outlined the interpretation of the colours: “Based on the make-up, characters can be classified into five basic sets – green, knife, beard, black and women. The dominant colour varies on the character and his personality, set according to Kathakali tradition.”
“Some fall asleep during make up which lasts up to three hours,” he added. “But with experience, performers learn to enter into the role.”
As we visited performers were preparing for a story from the Ramayana involving Hanuman, the monkey god and Lord Rama’s children Luv and Kush. Traditionally, the dance lasts all night.
Gruelling hours has meant kathakali has always been a male domain. But these days, women are beginning to challenge those rules.
K.P. Ranjini is a female Kathakali artist and spoke of her experience. “My father was a well-known kathakali artist. I was seeing it from my childhood days and I was attracted to this art form. I learnt a few dance moves on my own. Later, my father saw me doing this and he started teaching me kathakali, in the same way he taught his other students. This was when I was five years old.”
But she is under no illusions about the obstacles she faces. “Kathakali is a group performance and a male-oriented field. To establish yourself and get recognised you have to do more hard work than a male artist. These performances are done in temples, for the full night. So physically too you have to undergo very rigourous training to be in this field. You have to continue this else, you’re out”.
“No woman is taught in any of the famous institutions in Kerala. We are learning it privately. You prove yourself, then you are recognised. That’s the case of a female kathakali artists.”
These days, hour-long theatre shows have become a staple of the tourist trade. But only the night long temple performances still retain the authenticity of this ancient southern Indian ritual.