- The guru is enraged: the small, reed-thin student has messed up a critical bit of sequence yet again. The 15-year-old is being taken through a vital part of Kathakali training: the anti-hero’s part in Keechakavadham, which, the boy would only later learn, has an exalted status within the canon. At one point, the lecherous Keechaka has to teasingly simulate a female character, and that’s where the boy is repeatedly slipping up. The guru thrashes him black and blue—only to feel remorseful by evening, when both hug and weep in reconciliation. Followed by piping-hot parippuvadas, rolled in yesterday’s newspaper.
That’s a 65-year-old incident; a time when Kathakali—that beautiful, mysterious dark art forged on the crossroads of dance and theatre—was in a phase of critical renascence as it met a modern epoch. A time of self-aware attention to pedagogy, to the setting of norms, to codification. Over the decades, as the form attained a rare kind of respect from the world, that kid too went on to become a celebrity, perhaps the best (and best known) exponent of his art.
“I actually felt sorry I made my master cry,” recalls Kalamandalam Gopi, quite the master of all he surveys today, at a stately 81. Padmanabhan Nair was a sensitive, sympathetic tutor. “Most of us were short-fused. Beatings were integral to the classroom...whether or not we struck a truce later.” It matched. A classical ballet form—shining with a pre-modern light. And a training culture of near-monastic harshness, internally dictatorial, even patriarchal. All of it born…soaked in a feudal ethos, including that uncommon sense of awe and beauty.
Would you want to tinker with it? To update, evolve, change? A recent workshop on the dance form brought forth some of this self-questioning. In a sense, it’s that eternal combat between old and new—a canon’s own inner conflict, between its instincts for preservation and renewal. But at present, the Kathakali world is mirroring the old paradigm shift—examining itself critically as the world changes around it once again.
At the eight-day event, ‘Navabhava’, hosted in the heritage village of Karalmanna in balmy December, select masters of the art had some intense viewing of full performances by next-generation artistes and publicly articulated their analysis after each session. It was an unorthodox exercise—most likely the first for any classical performing art in India—and elicited both kudos and apprehensions about its efficacy.
Like benevolent experts at TV song competitions, the empanelled veterans seldom appeared high-handed. Beyond the usual tips and critical notes, they were largely in praise of the dozen-odd juniors. As maestro Sadanam Krishnankutty, 76, said, “I don’t think we performed this well at your age. It’s gladdening you have such venues for (mid-course) rectification.” Still, a section of disapproving aesthetes found it bordering on spectacle. Others hailed the sessions as a harbinger of a kind of finishing-school coaching they feel Kathakali needs.
Krishnankutty, as his name-prefix implies, learned at the famous school Sadanam, near Lakkidi, another Palakkadan idyll just an hour away. Here, current principal K. Harikumaran conducts the innovative “mirror class”, where students watch their own hand gestures and body movements in big glass panels. “I got the idea from my Santiniketan days,” he says, recalling his early ’90s stint in West Bengal. You sense Rabindranath Tagore’s universalising, eclectic spirit ruffling the placid waters off Sadanam in riverine Peroor.
“Institutionalisation has made guru-shishya ties contractual,” says critic V. Kaladharan. “Also, standardisation checks bids off the beaten track.”
Harikumaran also makes students visualise the objects they mime. “The elephant, for one, has a prescribed, detailed gestural portrayal. But I insist my boys see the animal in their mind…going beyond Natyashastra,” he adds. That is, going beyond a mechanical reproduction of mudra to a felt exploration of the acted part. The idea is to open up the realm of imagination in the dancer, says artiste Ettumanoor P. Kannan. “So steeped is this art in stylisation that an average pupil, after 10 years of training, is likely to be bogged down by its dry grammar,” he says. “And what is Kathakali, after all, without manodharmam!” That is, improvisation.
Kalamandalam, the oldest modern school for Kathakali—nestled by the Nila river, a vital artery for the artform in its classical northern Kerala habitat—is not immune to this inner turbulence. Kannan (who had been dean of its 10-year-old ‘MA campus’) ruefully revisits the effort Kalamandalam initiated, in 1990, to blend Kathakali training with general education. “Both classes go on together, but as watertight chambers,” he shrugs. So, theatre experts give classes on seminal Russian theatre exponent Konstantin Stanislavsky but no one attempts to relate his ‘method acting’ to Kathakali’s 400-year-old approach. It’s an intriguing thought: one is inward-bound, grounded in modern psychological realism, the other majestically exterior, tight explosions of balletic, mimetic exaggeration.
But again, should such academic openness be there at all for those training in an extremely strict discipline with its own powerful aesthetic grammar? Does even normal classwork impinge too much on a pupil’s mindspace? Gopi, a typical maestro with barely middle-school literacy, looks askance at such an arrangement, for one.
Far removed from such pedantry, veterans revel in stories about some impromptu, on-the-job learning. Pioneering female artiste Chavara Parukutty, 73, recalls an exigency that forced her to do Shakuntala—“totally new for me”— opposite a veteran one ’60s night when the slotted artiste didn’t turn up at the venue down the state. “Your senior colleagues turn into masters in the greenroom…the lead musician too chipped in with clues,” she smiles.
That’s lore from Kathakali’s southern stream. Both sides fondly mock each other. “Up north, the shishya may be playing king, but he’ll be visibly submissive to his guru, playing charioteer,” says aesthete Evoor K.S. Mohandas, laughing. That’s sure to be contested by the other side, but the nugget points to a key stage in training: role specialisation. Each student displays potential for different capabilities that’s for the teacher to locate and develop. The common course entails intense physical drills and eye exercises, and proceeds from basic steps to invocatory dances to simple roles to extremely slow, long choreographed pieces. Only after this are specific niches drawn out.
Here, Kathakali masters could look at, say, American psychologist Howard Gardner’s theory of multiple intelligences, feels educationist M.V. Rajan. But critic V. Kaladharan laments that syllabi have never seen any sensitive updates. “Rather, the tendency is to truncate content, making each lesson superficial. This, when the community must ideally look at the repertoire closely and restructure the content to save it from banality,” he says.
Female roles gain vitality, women artistes too; Top, Iconic Kalamandalam Gopi in an action montage
Physique-centricity had made Kathakali a male preserve traditionally. Today, strong, totemic males come alive on stage via female bodies.
Kaladharan, who has served at Kalamandalam, feels ‘institutionalisation’ has made guru-shishya relations “purely contractual”, and hence “standardisation is enveloping performing arts” today. “This leaves little space for gifted artistes to tread off the beaten track. The present society won’t tolerate freaks,” he adds. One sign of homogenisation—the “unprecedented rise” in students keen to spin off into PhD or secure fellowships. “Research should ideally happen out of curiosity. That’s seldom the case today,” says artiste Peesappilly Rajeevan, also an alumnus of School of Drama in Thrissur.
Veteran teacher M.P.S. Namboodiri recalls that his batch, which joined Kalamandalam in 1958, was the first to write an exam to pass a Kathakali course. The study material haven’t changed much since, but training time has shrunk to a third of what it used to be—13-and-a-half hours a day under Pattikkamthodi Ravunni Menon, the iconic artiste and preceptor-in-chief in the ’30-40s. An imposing presence on the circuit, Menon put on his students—the who’s who of Kathakali—the impress of his Kalluvazhi style that effectively defines the mainstream today. M.P.S.—taught by Menon’s frontline disciple, a cane-wielding Ramankutty Nair—jokes about corporal punishment: “I don’t myself employ it, but a fear of punishment can bring out your best. But seriously, today’s format of high school, Plus 2, BA and MA, dilutes the focus.”
Very few artistes today trained as resident shishyas. Madavoor Vasudevan Nair is one—having lived with his guru, Chengannur Raman Pillai, for 12 years. Madavoor went modern, of course, serving Kalamandalam when it set up a wing in 1968 for the southern idiom that treats Kathakali more as theatre than dance.
Meanwhile, other dialects and idioms were also taking birth. In 1963, Western theatre director Eugenio Barba stayed in Kalamandalam for months, observing the training. His close associate Jerzy Grotowski (1933-99) of Poland too drew from Kathakali while propounding his minimalist ‘poor theatre’ that banks heavily on the actor’s body.
This physique-centricity had perhaps wrought an effect: Kathakali was a male universe. This even set its performative limits. The old choreography had only a few ‘feminine’ spaces: the category of love-struck demoness, and some unchanging set-pieces akin to mobile props. For the most part, the ‘female’ was indeed a prop, a presence around which the male role would be enacted (“just put a pestle there,” they used to say, as a dummy for not just even practice).
This changed in the ’50s, with male artistes like Kudamaloor Karunakaran and Kottakkal Sivaraman, who created expansive emoting spaces for a Damayanti, Mohini or Kunti. A further decisive shift, backed by socio-cultural changes, came with female artistes—hitherto kept out with typical arguments. (‘The male gear is heavier. And the taxing chavittiyuzhichil oil massage, a monsoon ritual that reputedly fortified the spine, couldn’t possibly be done on girls by their masters!’) Once on stage, women first got boxed into female roles (‘naturally’), but now even that barrier is broken—strong, totemic males have come alive on stage via female bodies.
In 1975, a few women of the erstwhile Kochi royal family had accelerated this change, forming the Ladies’ Kathakali Troupe, Tripunithura, with the legendary Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair’s encouragement. Geetha Varma of the collective says a culture of servility had harmed Kathakali, thwarting one’s spirit to improvise. “It’s unhealthy for an art if a pupil is only expected to reproduce what the master taught,” she notes. “We got gurus who let us develop. That’s as vital as the initial handholding.”
That way, the Karalmanna workshop permitted some unorthodox stage dynamics. “Here, even the middle-aged had to sometimes do minor characters, when upstarts shone as protagonists,” reveals K.B. Raj Anand, president of the trust that hosted ‘Navabhava’. Says organiser Mudrakhya Sasi: “Even the duo holding the curtain-cloth requires training. And definitely even the greenroom etiquette warrants reforms.”
Change brings doubts of all sorts. Training these days gives insufficient emphasis to the literary side, regrets young artiste Arun Warrier. “But then,” says Kaladharan, “Kathakali has become more demonstrative, less meditative.” And Gopi recalls how meditativeness was once produced at the end of a cane!
Photographs by Naveen Rudran, Raghu Ganesh, C.N. Shyamkumar