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Kathakali : Performance, Mudras, Music, Musical Instruments, and Artists

Kumar Paral is a writer, a culture enthusiast, and a bibliophile.

Kathakali Performance

A Kathakali actor has to undergo a very strenuous training for around 10 years to master it satisfactorily under Gurukula system ( students have to stay with teachers for learning). But the study time has become more flexible to attract more students now. Students are enrolled when they are about ten years old. The initial stage of training is to make the body flexible by using the basic techniques of Kalaripayattu, an indigenous martial art of Kerala. As the performers are not speak on the stage, the story has to be enacted by hand signs, facial expressions and bodily movements. The actor has to learn all these skills by practicing the systematized classical guidelines and methods. They have to practice it for many years to get recognition and foot hold in the field. The actors became famous and well known only at the fag end of the career in the past. The films, television and the growing cultural exchanges have made tremendous boost to their career now.

Cholliyattam in Kathakali

Cholliyattam and Ilakiyattam are two types of acting in Kathakali. In Cholliyattam , the actor enacts the padas and lyrics, which are sung by the Ponnani and sinkkidi, word by word. The actor presents what he has learned as per the modes and styles of the art form from his teachers. In such performance, actors creative talent is not fully expressed as they repeat the earlier stylized version of the dance drama.

Ilakiyattam in Kathakali

Ilakiyattam is the original performance of the actor after the Cholliyattam,which is without the support of the dialogue or lyrics. The actors use his own talent and experience in acting beyond the systematically learned part. The creative and original talent of the performer can be judged from his Ilakiyattam which enable him stand out from the crowd.

Women Characters in Kathakali

Women Characters in Kathakali

Musical Instruments / Instrument accompaniment (Vadyam)

The orchestra in Kathakali is very significant as it has to support the actors expressions with changing the tempo of it. The artists of instruments also need specialized long term training to master the skills for Kathakali. The instruments use in the Kathakali are Chenda (a type of drum), Madhalam (a long cylindrical drum), Chengila ( gong), and Ilathalam (an instrument similar to cymbal). Some times Idakka (a type of small drum) is also used.

Kathakali Pacha Vesham (Green)



Kathakali Music

As a dance drama, music has a pivotal role in Kathakali. Being a type of pantomime, the music is also the prime medium of communication. The attakatha is in the form of songs and padas (metrical prose) which is to be sung by a group of singers; Ponnani (main singer), and Sinkkidi ( supporting singer). The vocal music of Kathakali is a music of mood. It has the elements of the ritualistic music of Kerala and the systematized classical music traditions like Sopana Sangeetham. The Carnatic music has also influenced it greatly. Even though it is influenced by varied sources, it has its own style and identity.

Kathakali : Rituals and Sequence of Events

Kathakali has some elements of ritualistic arts. Kathakali performance has a sequence of events in the following order

  1. Keli - It is a percussion performance just before sunset on the day of Kathakali as an announcement that there will be a Kathakali performance nearby. In the earlier days, it was the only important means of publicity.
  2. Arangu keli – It is a brief percussion concert using Maddalam, gong and the cymbals.
  3. Todayam – It is a dance sequence inside the curtain performed mainly by junior artists in tune with the lyrics contains prayers to the various gods.
  4. Vandanaslokam - It is the singing of the hymn praising the favourite deities.
  5. Purappaadu – It is the debut of the hero and his spouse or other the virtuous characters.
  6. Melappadam – It is a celebrated percussion concert.
  7. Kathakali - the main attakatha performance.
  8. Dhanasi - The concluding benediction dance by a Pachcha character.

Kerala Kalamandalam, India

Kerala Kalamandalam was established by Vallathol Narayana Menon, one of the famous poets of Kerala, for encouraging and preserving the rich traditions of classical art forms in 1930. His main aim was to save Kathakali. Kalamandalam is located at Cheruthuruthy in Trichur district of Kerala. The service rendered by this institution for the protection and popularisation of Kathakali is invaluable during the period of neglect after the broke up of feudal system which had been giving the greatest support for classical arts. Kalamandalam is a deemed university now and is supported by government for preserving the diverse and rich tradition of classical arts like Kathakali Koodiyattom, Mohiniyattom, Koothu, and. It has grown into a world class cultural institution in which students from all over the world are undergoing studies and research. The Kathakali troop of Kerala Kalamandalam tours foreign countries popularizing and show casing this great classical art.

Kathakali Mudras

Kathakali Mudras

Kathakali performances are mostly based on Bharata's “Natysashtra “ which is one of earliest treatise on dance and drama in the world. Mudras are hand signs and gestures. As per Indian classical traditions, basically there are 24 mudras. It is systematized by Bharat Muni in his Natyasashtra. The basic mudras can be mixed to form a number of signs to communicate a number of ideas and themes.

Krishna and Rukmini

Krishna and Rukmini

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Women in Kathakali

Women and Kathakali

Women players were not appeared in Kathakali in the beginning as the social condition of that period was not in favor of the presence of women on the stage. The male actors played the role of women and it was not much incongruous in Kathakali as the characters are more or less types rather than individuals. There were some women writers of attakatha in its early phase of its evolution. Ammu Kuttiyamma who wrote Sree Rama Vijayam Attakatha and Kunhi kutty Thankachi who wrote Parvathy Swaya Varam, and Sreemathi Swayam Varam were some of the distinguished authors of attakatha in 19th century. It was in the early 20th century, women began to participate in singing and acting in Kathakali. Vanjiyoor Karthiyaniyamma, Geetha .N, Geetha Ramesh Varma, Chavara Parukutty are very renowned women actors of Kathakali. Arya devi, Geetha Varma P B, Sadanam Sisters ( Sadanam Nalini and Sadanam padmini) are some of the famous singers of Kathakali who excelled in the field like that of their male counter parts. A number of women from other countries also have learned this great art and began show casing the great classical art to foreign audience.

Kathakali Melapadam

Famous Kathakali Artists

Vazhenkkada Kunchu Nair

Pattikamthodi Ravunni Menon

Kavalapara Narayana Menon

Kunchu Kurup

Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair

Kottakkal Sivaraman

Kalamandalam Ramankutty Nair,

Kalamandalam Gopi

Sadanam Krishnankutty

Edith Albaladejo

Libosher Nathali, France

Kalamandalam Gopi

Kalamandalam Gopi

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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2013 Kumar Paral

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