Kathakali | From backstage to centre stage

We need an Indian Arts Administrative Service, says art critic and author KK Gopalakrishnan as he expounds on the virtues and challenges of Kathakali in contemporary world

June 02, 2023 01:13 am | Updated 02:00 pm IST

A Kathakali dance performance named ‘‘Keechaka Vadham’‘ in Kerala,

A Kathakali dance performance named ‘‘Keechaka Vadham’‘ in Kerala,

Once a banker, KK Gopalakrishnan chose to focus on art instead of the ledger. The tales of a teller did not interest him. His passion led him to focus on performing art traditions in Kerala. Now, a governing body member of the South Zone Cultural Centre of the Ministry of Culture, he has come up with a new book, Kathakali Dance Theatre: A Visual Narrative of Sacred Indian Mime. The book, which comes with a foreword by Leela Samson, takes the reader behind the scenes, into the green room of artists, their struggles and unique bonds built over long make-up hours.

Edited excerpts from an interview:



What is the inspiration behind your book?

I started writing about performing arts traditions in Malayalam. Veterans in the field, such as Leela Venkataraman, the late Sunil Kothari and the late David Bolland, who authored A Guide to Kathakali, and many others encouraged me to write a book on Kathakali in English from my perspective.

Kathakali is a complex art form, the appreciation of which is enhanced by the spectators’ familiarity with its gestural language, make-up codes, its stories, etc. How does it remain relevant to today’s audiences???

Kathakali is the best example of touryatrika, an aesthetic medley of music, drums and dance. To appreciate the play beyond the superficiality of seeing gods, demons and humans as larger-than-life characters on the stage and anti-heroes as protagonists, one must understand the story. In the initial stages of watching Kathakali, getting familiarised with the long process in the green room and reading the synopsis in advance is a bonus.

Introducing microphones and modern acoustics brought a renaissance in the rendering of Kathakali music and its popularity.

When I started watching Kathakali, most in the audience were above 50. In contrast, in the last two to three decades, youngsters have dominated the audience in Kerala.

In The God of Small Things, Arundathi Roy wrote, “It doesn’t matter that the story had begun because Kathakali discovered long ago that the secret of the Great Stories is that they?have?no secrets. The Great Stories are the ones you have heard and want to hear again.” Thus, it is relevant today as the best-of-the-stage aesthetics available and as a classy pantomimic dance-theatre (touryatrika) for entertainment where one may ruminate into own epics too.

Many of the solo classical dance styles today are flourishing as hobbies of the well-heeled. They regularly fund their work with the help of private means. This cannot be said to apply to Kathakali. What are effective means of sponsorship in?today’s?times?

The notion of pay or influence and getting performance is yet to creep in among the Kathakali artists groomed from institutions. A few Kathakali trainers, however, collect money in thousands from wealthy parents and arrange performances occasionally. Many earn something as tableau artists for public processions, extras in films and other casuals. So none of the Kathakali masters post-Independence dared to dedicate their children to professional Kathakali. Each state government must focus on creating extensive footage of the lingering vestige of our art traditions. The New Education Policy greatly supports art forms such as Kathakali. In CSR, a percentage should be made mandatory to support art forms of the regions concerned. We need Indian Arts Administration Service and groom art administrators at a younger age with good exposure to the vast Indian cultural scenario. If revenue, railways and postal services have it, why not for culture, which is our second breath.

Beyond doing small roles in films, what is the financial and social position of Kathakali artists today? Are there enough artists in the new generation to ensure a healthy future?for?the?art?

In Kerala, the situation is good for very few artists. There are a few brilliant youngsters. Of these, some are employed in government institutions on annual contracts but regularity in their salary is not assured. Outside Kerala, Kathakali artists survive by conducting classes for dancers and theatre actors, and by assisting choreographers.

How does Koodiyattam, a highly complex art with a niche appeal, compare with Kathkali in the present fast-paced?world?

One cannot compare the two. Koodiyattam is also not an art that is suitable for today’s public entertainment scenario. Five spectators for Koodiyattam is pleasing; 25 is something remarkable. I am an eye-witness. I was the director of the Centre for Koodiyattam of the Sangeet Natak Akademy for six years. Kathakali is different. Both will sustain; Koodiyattam by imitating Kathakali, and Kathakali practitioners by imitating their predecessors.

Do you agree with Leela Samson when she says in the foreword, today it is only katha ??no?kali?

I couldn’t agree more for two reasons. Modern-day Kathakali is diluted, chiefly, focusing on middle-brow tastes. Thus, only the Katha (story) sustains but with damages to the Kali element (play/dance-theatre) of it. Kathakali is a story, play, and dance theatre. Suggestive acting is its backbone, with the actor as the narrator and interpreter. Second, she learned Kathakali very well and is technically outstanding in portraying the roles of heroines; she knows the art.

KKG's book cover

KKG's book cover | Photo Credit: SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

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