Mythical ode


emotive A Kathakali dancer photo by Dilip Banerjee

Today, dance forms like Bharatnatyam, Kathakali, Kathak and Manipuri are recognised as principal schools of classical dance art. Kathakali, the most popular classical dance of them all, originated in Kerala in the mid-17th century under royal patronage. The origin of this dance form is due to Kerala Varma, the then prince of the neighbouring state of Kottayam. He was also the creator of the name Kathakali, which means narrative (Katha) and dance (Kali). The characteristic feature of Kathakali is that it combines some of the best literary compositions in Malayalam, vocal and instrumental music and mudras depicting emotions in accordance with the Hindu shastras.

Like Bharatnatyam, Kathakali started off as a religious dance form; it was a part of temple worship in Kerala. During religious festivals, Kathakali had to be performed in an open air temple-compound and thus, a number of temples maintained their own permanent Kathakali troupes. A Kathakali dancer had his face painted with certain significant colours, which is still practised today. Besides the make-up, the dancer had to also decorate his head with an ornamental crown and the body with vibrant costumes. It is also known that in the early stage of Kathakali, wooden masks were used instead of make-up. But, eventually, it was realised that wooden masks couldn’t express emotions and they were subsequently abandoned and the practice of painting faces was introduced.

The make-up of a Kathakali character has certain connotations. For instance, green represents saattvika, which reveals godliness, while white represents spirituality. The dance moves are governed by rules that regulate the bhava and tala. The theme of the dance is represented through music. Previously, all female roles were portrayed by male actors, but today, females too participate in this dance form.

Due to public indifference and official neglect, Kathakali was losing  its significance. It was on the verge of extinction when Mukunda Raja and Mahakavi Vallathol took up the noble task of reviving this dance form by establishing Kerala Kalamandalam in 1930. From here, a number of able actors in Kathakali emerged. Some of them include Kunju Krishna Panikar and Bhahmasvam Kunju Pillai. Calcutta Kalamandalam, founded in 1968, has also popularised Kathakali with remarkable success across the globe.

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