From "A Dancer on Dance"
written by V.P. Dhananjayan, published by Bharata Kalanjali
Kathakali - Classical Technique

The technique in Kathakali is highly classical and the audience have some knowledge of the idiom of the play. The actors do not speak at all. The only speech comes from the singers and the songs tell the story and are very often in dialogue form. The words, sentiments, the emotions, all these are expressed by the actors through body movement, stylized hand gestures (called Pastas or Murders) and through facial expressions.

Hand Gestures
The hand gestures are stylized and each one of these gestures has a meaning. These 'Hashes' as they are called, have the common characteristics of all forms deriving from the Natty Sister of Brahma. Kathakali has adapted these and developed its own code, and the entire vocabulary of the spoken language. In Kathakali, these gestures are dynamic in movement, while in many other dance forms they are static. Number, tense, mood and all the shades of grammatical niceties can be conveyed through gestures.

The Speaking Drums of Kathakali
It is very strange - the same drum speaks differently on different occasions - whether it be a temple festival of the 'Thirauattam' (a folk ritual) or Velichappadan (Oracle) or the Onathar (a folk dance indicating the arrival of Mahabali during Onam day) or a cinema pamphlet's distribution. The people of Kerala can distinguish the different beats of the same drum in those different situations. And the same drum, 'Chenda', speaks a different note for a Kathakali event and that is how people get notice of a Kathakali performance.

The hustle and bustle of the busy evening is broken by the strains of the 'Chenda' heard even at a distance of 4 to 5 miles, announcing the performance of Kathakali that night somewhere, and the people are drawn towards the sound of the speaking drums, Chenda and Maddalam. Chenda and maddalam are high precision classical instruments which need rigorous training for several years to master the art, and the intricacies are even greater than the Tavil or Mridangam. For each occasion, the refrain of beats is distinct. To play Chenda and Maddalam for a Kathakali performance requires an entirely different training, to evoke the requisite speaking quality of the drum.

The combination of Chenda, Maddalam and Elattalam is a feast of marvelous sound with penetrating and reverberating beats, which only the classically tuned ears can take, like any other classical forms of art. The richness of Kathakali commences with the vibration of these mystical drums and carries splendour from the finger tips of the player to the attentive ears of the spectators.

Making of a Kathakali actor
Generally to become a Kathakali actor one has to undergo a very strenuous and rigorous course of physical training, including separate exercise of muscles, eye-balls, eye-brows, eye-lids, lips, neck, shoulder, etc., and must have a through knowledge of literature, Sanskrit and Malayalam and deep awareness of the Puranas and Ithihasas (epics and mythologies). he must also have the dexterity of an artist (painter) to know the combinations of colour and lining to draw the intricate designs on the face, plus a face itself that would match the imaginative make-up. One in whom all these are combined only can make a mark in Kathakali. Also there is no question of doing 'Arangetram' in six months or one year or even three years. The only standard for 'Arangetram' in Kathakali is real proficiency in the art with all perquisite knowledge. The tradition still persists that no cheap popularity is attained by publicity or high influence. One has to come up only by virtue of merit.


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