Kathakali questions and answers for beginners

Sunday, April 8, 2012 - 17:54
  1. What is Kathakali?

A rather personal query.  Try finding out answer yourself after watching a minimum of 10 plays enacted on stage.
Kathakali is the contribution of Kerala towards classical and traditional dance-drama art forms.  In Kathakali, literature, music, rhythm, fine-art, acting and dance, all are blended together and hence could be a termed as “Fusion Art”. Control of physique as well as expressional techniques are equally important in Kathakali.  Kathakali is a multi-faceted art form that can be viewed from different levels of appreciation.  This is, at the same time, epical as well as modern.  Though the theme is taken from epics (ithihasa or puraana), more often than not, what is conveyed is not from a believer’s point of view and neither do they deal with the “Supreme Power”.  Therefore, restrictions of language, land or origin or creed do not function as a hindrance to appreciation and hence Kathakali turned out to be a popular art form.  The performer of Kathakali transmits feelings into the viewers by adopting 4 kinds of acting techniques.  The expressions brought on the face are called “PURE EXPRESSION” or “Saatwika Abhinaya”.  The expressions transmitted through movement of body and limbs such as hand gestures, body movements, dance etc, are “GESTICULATED EXPRESSION” or “Angika Abhinaya”.  In Kathakali, the actor himself/herself seldom speaks.  The speaking is performed in the form of vocal music and percussion instruments by specialists at the playback.  This acting, that is transmitting of feelings through sound, called “VOCAL EXPRESSION” or “Vaachika Abhinaya” , is also included in Kathakali.  Through peculiarly designed attires, facial make-ups and stage arrangements, certain feelings are again transmitted to the viewer.  This kind of transmission of feeling, which may be termed as “COSMETIC EXPRESSION” or “Aahaarya Abhinaya”, is also a part of Kathakali.  Rarely would one find another art form in which these four types of acting techniques are cohesively united.  Consider these situations:  There is no “Kailasa” mountain before “Ravana” when he tosses the mountain, but a viewer experiences he has lifted and tossed the mountain.  When Krishna readies the horses and arranges the chariot, there are practically none of these present on the stage.  Nevertheless, through stylized choreography and prescribed expressions, viewer is led to see what is not physically present.  Kathakali, by and large, uses these acting techniques, which are called “THEATRICAL REPRESENTATION” or “Naatyadharmi”.  It is true that that a viewer is entertained in an easier way by transmitting sentiments in the manner that our surrounding beings behave.  This kind of acting technique, which is called “SIMULATED REPRESENTATION” or “Lokadharmi” is also included, though rarely, in Kathakali.  The famous miner of “Bakavadham” who resorts to pan eating/spitting and some Brahmin characters of plays such as Nalacharitam Day 3 who simulates a modern day human etc. are familiar to us.  Even a beginner viewer of Kathakali can be entertained by these gestures. At the same time, it is debatable whether a person who has been viewing Kathakalis for twenty years, is fully capable of appreciating the real essence of Kathakali.

  1.  Have all Kathakali plays been adopted from Epics (Puraanas)?

Not necessarily.  There are several plays based on modern stories, Greek Epics and Shakespearian plays.  However, probably because the themes do not congenial to our traditions, most of these Kathakali Plays did not attain much popularity.

  1.  How many times could just one play be viewed? Won’t one get bored? Everything being enacted is known in advance?  Then why view it another time?

All the above questions could only be answered singularly.  Contents of popular plays of Kathakali today would be known to most of the viewers since they are taken from more popular epics.  Regular viewer could recite the contents of the text.  We would well to remember that Kathakali is not Cinema.  The trouble is when we try to relate appreciation quality needed for Kathakali and Cinema.  Kathakali is not viewed on a screen but is real-time performance.  There would be difference in the same character being presented by the same actor on different stages depending on his state of mind in relation to physical and mental conditions as well as the contemporary social circumstances.  The mildest of bad cold could affect performance of an actor or a singer.  Or, even the difference in stage arrangements could affect the overall effect of the performance. (Also, each time a real time performance is seen, the viewer is elevated to a different level.  This aspect holds good for certain classical drama performances, classical music performances etc..  Therefore, every time of viewing generates fresher experience in the viewer.

  1.  Would it be possible to appreciate new, unknown plays?

Definitely; it would be prudent to present a synopsis of the new play, especially those parts which are presented as “IMPROVISED NARRATIONS” or “Manodharmam” prior to actually staging new plays.  In most cases, the viewers are introduced to the play through brief narrations.  Even without the introduction, appreciation level does not diminish if the play is presented in the established Kathakali Performance framework.  Remember that we learn the framework of Kathakali and not the story itself.  What we really enjoy is that Kathakali Framework and not the evolution of the story itself.

  1.  In most cases, a Kathakali Play is not fully enacted on stage.  Is there no pertinence of the story or its sequence in Kathakali?

I could be stated that the importance of the story or its sequence does not play that important a part in Kathakali as compared to cinema or novel.  Kathakali is the staging of such scenes from a play, which are most suited to presentation, al-beit, without adversely compromising on the core ethical essence of the contents and this is the commonly accepted norm of presentation of Kathakali plays.  Rarely would one find an unexpected or surprise movement on a Kathakali stage, as is common in other art forms.  The basic principle of viewing is that the viewer should have a fair knowledge about the story being enacted.  The very nature of classical art forms like Kathakali is to create an experience within the viewer by presenting the scenes in the accepted stylized choreographic framework.
This does not mean that there is absolutely no pertinence to the story.  Even if all the lines written by a playwright is not presented, it would be experienced that there is completeness about the scenes being staged.  For example, there is a completeness in the scene where Ravana enacts the scene of “Thapas” in “Ravanothbhavam”, even though this particular scene is a deviation to what has been prescribed by the playwright.  (Ravana, understanding the sorrow of his mother proceeds to please the “Creator” (Brahma) to attain blessings and ends the scene by preparing himself to conquer all the worlds)

  1.  Could anyone enjoy Kathakali?

Absolutely.  All that is needed is a state of mind for that.  Wouldn’t we learn all about a new mobile phone by going through the manuals or by experimenting on the buttons? Similarly, to enjoy cricket, is it not required to know the basic rules and techniques?  That’s all!  A state of mind to get introduced to Kathakali is all that is needed to know about it.

  1.  It has been said that the hand gestures are performed to the words of the song (padam).  But, how would one relate the hand gestures to the words of the song?

Knowing the literature contained in song (padam) is an advantage.  Many peoples who listens to the songs and the literature contained in it.  This will help in understanding the songs and the meaning of its contents in general.  This should be followed by watching a performance by relating each word to the hand gestures being presented to represent the words.  In many a case, listening Kathakali songs have paved way to attracting the audience to view a performance.  Some other people are attracted towards the presentation techniques and certain others are drawn towards Kathakali due to percussions.

  1.  Isn’t it necessary to know Sanskrit to understand Kathakali songs (padams)?

Not absolutely essential.  There are numerous Sanskrit terminologies in vogue in the present day spoken Malayalam.  However, having basic knowledge about Sanskrit is an added advantage.  Precisely, what is needed is, as mentioned earlier, is a will to learn the art form.  How many times would we have hurt ourselves while learning to ride bicycle?  None of us stopped learning cycling because of that.  Some of us even have gone to the extent of displaying gymnastics with bicycle.  A similar attitude towards Kathakali would help anyone enjoy a Kathakali performance.

  1.  Other than hand gestures, what else should be paid attention to on the movements of the ruler of the stage, or the actor?

It is not known how far this usage of “Ruler of the Stage” is appropriate. Generally, Kathakali is considered an art form which is sustained by the efforts of a handful of viewers.  Having said, an actor is the most important link.  However, musicians, percussionists and green room artists are also indisputably important.  To exemplify this, the green room artists are essential for timely holding of curtain in Kathakali.  The one who controls stage proceedings is the Main Singer (The principal singer of Kathakali is called “Ponnani” and secondary singer is called “Shinkiti”).  To come back to the question, paying attention to the stage is as important as to decide on what to pay attention to and what not to.  It would be enough to concentrate on the actor who is enacting at any given point of time, in general sense.  To be more precise, it is essential to pay particular attention to the movement of the primary, secondary and tertiary expressional organs (Anga-Pratyanga-Upaanga-ngal).  For instance, concentrate on the eyes (including eye balls), lips, cheeks, limbs movements, hand gestures; body language etc. should be paid attention to. To understand the sequence of a conversation, it would suffice if one watches the hand gestures, and with the hand gestures, the face.  There is just no need to watch other actors who are not actually enacting or conversing.  More often than not, these persons would be standing as if nothing else matters.  However, in certain situations the co-actor would have to involve himself in the conversation.  We would well to keep in mind that viewing a cinema or a play is different from watching a Kathakali performance.  In fact, Kathakali is best viewed closest to the stage.

  1.  How to follow hand gestures and its continuity?

This is attained by the experience of constant watching of performance, called the Stage Acquaintance (Aranguparichayam). Hand gestures are meant to be interpretation of words.  Kathakali enactment is the gesticulated expression of words.  Hence, pay attention to the words and how they are represented through hand gestures.  No matter how erratic how the initial judgment is, it can be perfected through the stage acquaintance mentioned earlier.

  1.  Will the gestures be repeated as the lines in a song are repeated?

No.  In fact, the question itself is out of place. On the contrary, it is because the interpretation of words in a line cannot be completed through hand gestures during its recitation once that the lines are being repeatedly sung.  In some cases, however, it may not be to complete a sentence that the lines are repeated and may be to explain, in detail, the spirits contained in the line.  For example, in Nalacharitham 3rd day, a Brahmin explains to Damayanthi that he would convey to the King of Ayodhya that many kings have arrived to wed her in accompaniment of band troupes.  The line specifies only this much.  The actor may explain in detail each of the instruments in the band troupes accompanying the kings.  He may decide on “Panchavaadyam” and would show playing of each of 5 instruments in Panchavadyam in order.  The line containing the words “Accompaniments and the band” (AalakambatikalOtum Melavadyaghoshathotum) would be repeatedly sung by the playbacks.  In certain other cases, example romantic songs (padams) sung in the lowest order of a rhythmic cycle, lines are repeated to complete acts such as “Look-Seeing” (Nokkikkaanal).  It is only after this “Look See” that the actual hand gestures representing the words of the line would begin.

  1.  Similar to repetition of lines In a song, it is experienced that lines are sung at a very slow speed and some other at a higher pace.  Why?

Kathakali is an art form in which extreme importance is rendered to expression of sentiments.  Depending on the spirit contained in the context, presentation of a song is made in different speeds (kaalam) of established rhythmic cycles (thaalavattam).  In order to interpret in detail the commencement, extent, appearance and presentation of a sentiment influences the decision on the duration of enactment of the spirits contained in a word, a phrase or a sentence.  The technique that Kathakali uses to bring out the above features of a sentiment is to regularize rhythmic cycles in different speeds. We would call these various speeds as “Order”.  The First Order is the slowest followed by Middle Order and Rapid Order.  To effectively present certain sentiments such as romantic feelings, the songs are composed in the First Order of a rhythmic cycle.  Though, generally songs set to First Order (Pathinja Kaalam) is seen in romantic scenes, in certain plays such as “Kottayam Plays” and “Subhadraharanam”, cycles of the first order is also used to bring out sentiments of valor.  It must be remembered that, slowing down the order does not necessarily mean that the speed of a rhythmic cycle is subjected to a reduction in number of beats.  On the contrary, the gap between the beats is adjusted in such a way that opportunity of expression is enhanced.  The duration needed to bring out a beat is not affected.  However, the duration between two consecutive beats are changed to bring out this effect.  By and large, Middle Order is used to converse in normal mood and Rapid Order is used to bring out sentiments such as anger.

  1. Since similar make up is used by a number of characters, how can they be identified?

The shapes of Kathakali, or rather its charecters, have been evolved from the sculptures and art forms prevalent in temples, especially art forms such as “Kalam Paattu”, wall paintings etc.  People familiar with these arts would not find it difficult to identify characters in a Kathakali Play.  It is also essential to know which play is being enacted.  The characters are also identified by listening to the lyrics of songs.  (It may be remembered that costumes and make-ups in Kathakali are representative of the nature of character and not the character itself.)

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Good overview/introduction to Kathakali. Please do a quick check on spellings. The word Ethics have a totally different meaning.

അത് രണ്ടാമതൊരു വായന ഇല്ലാത്തേന്‍റെ കുഴപ്പം ആയിരുന്നു. ഇപ്പോ ശരിയാക്കിയിട്ടുണ്ട്. ഇനിയും നിങ്ങള്‍ക്ക് കൂട്ടിചേര്‍ക്കാനുള്ളവ കൂട്ടി ചേര്‍ത്താലേ ഇത് കുറച്ച് കൂടെ ബെറ്റര്‍ ആവൂ.. നെറ്റില്‍ പിയര്‍ റെവ്യൂവിന്‍റെ രസം ഉണ്ടല്ലെ? :):) താങ്ക്സ് സചിന്‍.. (ശ്രീവല്‍സനും താങ്ക്സ്.. അദ്ദേഹം കഥകളി ഫേസ്ബുക്ക് ഗ്രൂപ്പില്‍ പറഞ്ഞിട്ടുണ്ടായിരുന്നു.)

It is a very good attempt.As you said "All that is needed is a state of mind for..... ", the rest will follow.

each and every padam(sang) has its ragam, thalam and based on that the ponnani
bhagavathar sings. The speed is based on this priniciple