Natya Kala Conference 2010
Dec 28: Kathakali
Text & pics: Lalitha Venkat

December 30, 2010

Day three saw an absolutely delightful Kathakali lec-dem by Sadanam PV Balakrishnan and Sadanam K Harikumar from Gandhi Seva Sadan / Sadanam, Palakkad, as learnt from Guru Keezhpadam Kumaran Nair that was truly educative and enlightening.

The Kathakali abhyasa sampradayam is divided into literary, physical, tala, ocular, improvisation aspects and how a performer acts with music.

- Literary aspect: A Kathakali student is expected to learn all the literature, the Sanskrit slokas and Malayalam verses by heart along with meanings, as part of the course.

- Physical aspect: In Kathakali, the stamping of the feet is very different from Bharatanatyam. The nerve endings of the brain are situated beneath the skin layer of the feet. So in Kathakali, the stamping of the foot is designed so the nerve endings are not damaged. The cavity under the feet gives more stability, also when you hit the floor, the pressure goes to the side on a tangent. The Kathakali dancer is trained to bring the body slightly to the front and stretch up to look tall. There are varied exercises to improve flexibility of the body, as well as all important breathing techniques with these stretches. A round of lifting the leg up and hitting the palm helps improve stability. Blood flow is less in stiff muscles, so an artiste gets tired. Unnecessary stiffening of the body also blocks creative energy. Inspired by the Kalari massage, artistes are given massages.

In Kathakali, most of the movements are in elliptical lines. The chuzhippu is done first and this is followed by the actual gesture. Kathakali follows the Hastalakshanadeepika that has 24 hand gestures, demonstrated by Srinathan. Then followed a brief exercise for the audience where we had to identify the gesture sequences demonstrated by Guru Harikumar. A thoroughly enjoyable experience.

The students are given body massage with neem oil and gingelly oil at Gandhi Seva Sadan by the guru. We were told that the guru does so because this promotes communication and trust between guru and disciple, builds a bond and gives the student a cherished feeling. The massage is given only during June/July during the monsoon season. A short video on how this massage is done by foot was enlightening. (Even parents are not allowed to watch the massage session as the students lapse into groans of pain!) Students are also trained to do massages and the guru directs them on how to do it. Nowadays even chenda and maddalam players ask for a massage.

Vignesh, Srinathan
- Eye exercises: In olden days, the students had to be up at 3am to do their eye exercises, but nowadays, this time has become flexible! These exercises are important for focusing and for movement. Different patterns of eye movements are incorporated. Similarly, there are exercises for eyebrows, lips, cheeks, neck and shoulders.

- Improvisation: Exercises like a conversation in Kathakali is given to students for improvisation, yet another delightful demo.

- Tala aspect: When they were studying, tala exercises were not there but Keezhpadam Kumaran Nair introduced tala exercises. These are now incorporated as part of Kathakali training. The todayam is a pure dance. Chenda, considered an asura vadyam is not used. Maddalam, considered a deiva vadyam, is used. In ancient times, todayam was not seen by the audience, it was performed behind a curtain. Nowadays it is performed on stage for a few minutes, after which a prayer for Krishna or Ganesha is sung. In purappadu, the character dances as a dancer, but not as the character itself. The movements are same for both male and female but more lasya is used in a female's movements. The force of the foot depends on the rasa. Each student is given classes in doing his own makeup. Looking at the mirror is supposed to help the dancer become the character he is to portray.

Guru Sadanam PV Balakrishnan
Guru Balakrishnan demonstrated a scene from the Ramayana of Ravana lifting the Kailasa mountain, and another of Ravana's flashback as a child lying in his mother Kaikasi's lap, when Kubera's vimanam flies overhead, to thunderous applause. Srinathan and Vignesh presented a scene of Kunti and Bhima in discussion. In Kathakali there are no rehearsals. Artistes come together, and many know what role they will play at the venue. In many scenes, just the beats of the maddalam and chenda convey the mood of the scene enacted by the dancer. So how is it possible for music and dance to gel without rehearsals? Since the musicians also attend all classes, they know everything and are accomplished artistes. Hence the understanding between musicians and actors is inherent.

Both the gurus feel Kathakali training must keep today's requirements in mind, but without compromising on traditional. Balakrishnan asan said: "Now is the proper time to think of Kathakali training. Earlier we used to have 9 to 10 hours of training a day. This left no time for academics. Now we need academic training or the student will be able to perform but not be able to communicate. The Kathakali curriculum must be changed to suit modern times without compromising on standards. We must be practical and think positively with sincerity to technique and quality."

Guru Sadanam K Harikumar
Harikumar asan elaborated further, "Gandhi Seva Sadan wants the students to appear for exams but when approached, Kerala Kalamandalam refused to let the students take their exams saying they are from Sadanam school. So we had to approach the National Institute of open schooling run by the Central Govt. It's a pity that the Kerala Govt is doing nothing for its own art form. The students are from very poor families and we are trying to exist on our own with no support coming from our own govt."