A ritual performance
is reproduced from narthaki.com
Lalithakala Academy, the 17-day program, July-Aug 2010, is an attempt to
search the roots of the pictorial art of Kerala.
designs, is the inheritance of humanity from ancient times. All over the
world, it first appeared on floors, and on walls of human dwellings. In
India, it has existed as part of ritualistic life in Hindu households.
Kolam in Tamilnadu, rangoli in Northern India, other forms in different
parts of India, are intimately connected with women and their domestic
routine. In Kerala, it is in the form of pookkalam, made of flowers during
Onam season. A different kind of drawing on the floor, Kalamezhuthu is
associated with sacred groves.
is a temple-centered ritual, tribal in origin, Dravidian in spirit, tampered
with or enhanced by changing times and influences. Naga kalam, Bhagavathy
kalam, and kalams dedicated to gods like Vetekaran, Ayyappan
etc, trace their origins to groves. This pictorial art, with its inseparable
rituals, takes a discerning reader to the roots of the aesthetic sensibilities
of cultural Kerala. Kalam progresses through three steps; kalamezhuthu,
drawing of the picture, kalam paattu, singing the myth to the accompaniment
of instruments, and kalam thullal, enactment of the myth in stylized
performance. And it has three aspects - aesthetic, religious, and social.
courtesy: Lalithakala Academy)
are combinations of two-dimensional and three dimensional designs drawn
on the floor using fine powder culled from nature. The drawing of a kalam
starts with a ritual in a space near the temple or the grove. Timed by
rituals, it is completed within a specific time. The picture takes shape
from a central line. Primary colors, black, white, green, yellow and red
are used and drawing is done with hands. The art of shading especially
the background, gives a velvet touch. And the border done in circles and
squares, in lines and dots, using colors in certain combinations are not
just for decoration. Permutations and combinations are used for foregrounding,
or to create illusions. The influence of the tantric must be a later addition.
The figures drawn come alive when the eyes of the central figures are opened,
again at a particular time marked by ritual. And lighted oil lamps around,
make the kalam a sacred space where rituals known as thiri uzhichil
is a form of worship.
illustrate the myth behind the central figure is sung in a sing-song style,
to the accompaniment of instruments unique to Kerala, chenda, a drum, conch,
At the third
stage, the deity represented in the kalam is transformed into a
persona, kolam. Then on, the myth is enacted in a performance. The
mystique of Kalamezhuthu lies in the magical combinations of its
designs, loud rhythmic music, stylized movements and masques, amidst the
interplay of light in the darkness. For, this ritual performance is a night-long
affair, annual events associated with belief systems in primitive communities.
of fine arts unique to Kerala, lie deep in this ritual art. The pictorial
designs reveal the roots of the art of drawing: on floor, on face, and
on body. They still retain their tribal origin. From here, Kathakali has
taken its colors, facial make-up, and costume. The sense of color reveals
symbolic meanings influenced by geographical features of tropical terrain
and climatic conditions. Night and day in the tropical wild must have shaped
the aesthetic sensibilities of Keralites. Growth, decay, and death must
have ingrained the philosophical quest. In a kalam, the image becomes
a metaphor, and a symbol.
and vadyam is an integral part of Kalamezhuthu. Music unique to
Kerala, in accompaniment with chenda, a drum, chiming cymbals, and sounding
conch to keep timings add to the surreal as the singer sings the myth connected
to the deity. Handed down by tradition, the oral literature known as thottam
paattu originated from here. And from these instruments have sprung
orchestrations like thayampaka and pancha vadyam, typical
Kerala art forms.
From the pictorial
and the oral, a third stage emerges. The myth is dramatized in a performance,
distinctive to Kerala. From the picture, the focus shifts to the performer:
the sacred space now becomes the theatre space where stylized performance
enacts a deeper reality. And nritta and abhinaya are added
to aesthetic aspects. Music, dance, and drama that are unique to Kerala,
have sprung from these ritual performances associated with Kalamezhuthu.
While percussions exclusive to Kerala created the needed magical ambience,
songs and stories gushed from its cornucopias creating poetry. And the
theatrical enhanced the dramatic.
the oldest Sanskrit theatre, had its origin here. Chakyar koothu known
for spicy dialogue, rose from here. Stylized dance that became world famous
as Kathakali, its facial make-up, its costume, its drama and dance, trace
their ancestry to kalams that are still in vogue in many parts of
has three stages: drawing of the Kalam, thiri uzhichil, worship
by lights and kalam maykkal, erasing the picture when the performer
emerges as if the central figure comes alive. For unsophisticated people,
surrealistic experience had a religious aura. In the dead of night, under
flaming lights, these sacred spaces acquired magical realism. Keeping the
unity of space, time and action, larger than life figures enacted an other-worldly
drama from a mythical past, the eternal struggle between the Good and the
Evil: the basic story of all the stories yet to come. The theatre space
now expanded to include the onlookers as participants. After a mesmerizing
experience, cleansed, chastened and humbled, they returned to the humdrum
life of productivity at home. As cultural Kerala traversed from kalam
to kolam, from drawing to performance, belief got encoded in the
form of colorful figures and figures got etched in the memory of village
communities creating ethnicity.
take us back to belief systems that nurtured a society before complexities
set in. These were seasonal events that the village looked forward to.
In a caste-ridden social hierarchy, each caste played its role in interdependence,
created and cemented their beliefs. They even settled matters under divine
inspiration of the performer. Lower castes catered to the manifold needs
of the upper rungs in the social ladder proving their ability and even
superiority, holding the balance of power, an essential political role.
It had healing
aspects too, both psychological and physical. Fear was palpable in primeval
communities that lived in the wild. The performer, the mouth piece of god,
was a benign force that cured many a psychosomatic illness. The powder
made from herbs to draw the kalam could heal common diseases. The
grass and leaves with which the costume was made, had properties that attracted
and killed germs of contagious diseases.
The whole exercise
put aside their fears and nurtured their hopes, for, the kalams
showcase three needs - protection, production and destruction. Mother goddess
appears in various aspects. Naga kalam dedicated to serpents is
exclusive to Kerala. They are propitiated even today for fertility and
abundance. Protection from the fear of evil and the harmful can also be
read in the invocation to the deity. The destruction of enemies, both real
and imaginary, happened not as witch hunts but as ritual healing within
the parameters of kalams. The weak who suffered definitely got healed.
Even when the
Academy focused on the pictorial aspects of Kalamezhuthu, the program
highlighted the roots of fine arts and aesthetic sensibilities of Kerala,
for, what is encoded in the collective unconscious is decoded in these
kalams. Retracing the story of our fine arts takes us to kalamezhuthu,
kalam paattu and kalam thullal. The fundamentals of popular
arts lie buried deep in this folk art, the belief that made the picture
and the picture that is central to the belief that created a culture.
is a freelance writer and a regular contributor to www.narthaki.com