Into The Dreams of Heroes

Vipin’s eyes are full of wonder.

“The best moment is when Bhima kills Doussasana, rips out his heart and drinks his blood - you see it all - it is very scary.”

Vipin is 12 and a new boy at the Kerala Kalamandalam, the famous academy of Kathikali, the great dance drama of Southern India. He and his friends at the school are allowed backstage to see their teachers, experts in their fields, preparing for a version of the Mahabharatha, a classic tale of good and evil.

Kathikali, like Vipin’s breathless account, is a vibrant and rich celebration of India’s imagination.

Bare bulbs cast harsh shadows across the painted faces of the actors undergoing four hours of dressing and make-up. It is early evening and still close and warm. There is incense burning and wisps of smoke hang in the sticky air. Men are being laced into heavy skirts of yards of cloth. Elaborate headdresses are tied on. Last minute alterations are made. Despite the bustle, there is a silence that makes the atmosphere almost religious. These calm, graceful Indian men are, being transformed in the half-light, very slowly, into Gods.

Kathikali came from the temple dramas enacted for the Kings and the Brahmin caste of Kerala. Although it was not recognisable in its present form until perhaps the seventeenth century, its origins are as old as the Hindu religious epics that it performs. In a sense, Kathikali is a bridge between the changing spiritual and  material worlds of India.

In Kathikali there are virtually no props, scenery or dialogue. The actors must tell their story through gestures, eye movements and highly elaborate costumes. What makes Kathikali so unique is that it is not about an individualised performance as in the western traditions of theatre; rather it is about structure, and for the actors, the sublimation of their ego. The actors become the Gods that they portray and give themselves over almost to possession.

An oil lamp burns at the front of the stage and in the make-up area. This is the presence of the Goddess and it is to this flame that the performers offer devotions so that their performance may please her.

Soft footsteps pad to the temple stage (the Koothambalam), the drummers start up and the dark Keralan night, heavy with mosquitoes and coconut oil explodes as the actors appear.

By the turn of the nineteenth century, the classical arts in Kerala were falling into obscurity for want of patronage. The Raj era had led to the loss of income for many of the Kings and this coincided with a great social pressure to confront the worst excesses of the strong Keralan caste system. Specifically, the proclamation by the King of Travancore to open the temples to all castes meant that Kathikali was brought out of a closed world, to a broader audience.

In 1930, the poet Vallathol Narayana Manon founded the Kalamandalam. It was an attempt to save the traditional forms and institutionalise them for a generation hungry for Independence and a reaffirmation of their cultural identity. At the Kalamandalam, the techniques that are taught are those that have lasted for centuries.

It is cool in the early morning in Cheruthuruthy, a small village two hours from Cochin. The Kalamandalan starts to wake at 4am. The boys in rows sit cross-legged on the floor before their master and practice their eye movements. The silence is broken by the rhythmic ‘clack, clack, clack’ of the master’s ‘mutti’ (wooden stick), used to beat time. Sweat starts to trickle, ever so slightly down the faces of the students. Dozens of pairs of eyes dart in rhythmic movements to the sound. Like pond of little frogs. One of the younger boys stifles a yawn.

At another classroom, a group is rehearsing a section of a play with complex “mudra’s” (hand gestures). Each twist of the wrist, each finger raised has it’s meaning. Execution is critical and the faces and hands all have their own grammar.

The training is intense and painful. There are at least one hundred roles in the active repertoire of Kathikali and each play may last all night. On graduation, an actor is expected to be able, without rehearsal, to play any of the characters involved in any of the stories. It is an enormous undertaking both physically and mentally.

Students of Kathikali train for six years, musicians and makeup artists for four and two respectively, but the process of learning and refining never stops.

Over time, the boys bodies are bent and shaped through rigorous exercise and massage and the struggle for posture is comparable to ballet. But men play all the characters.

“Kathikali is a devotional art form”

says Professor Balasubramanian, the head of the Kathikali department.

"…and it is about sacrifice…"

The Professor is a thin man, balding with a large clump of greying chest hair. A smile often plays around his lips. Today he is with four of his elder students in the Koothambalam, helping them refine their movement. He pushes and moulds them into the exaggerated postures of the art, stamping out rhythms on the earthen floor. For him, the pursuit of excellence and perfection in his art has lasted a lifetime.

“And there is nothing more important”.

“Poverty meant that when I was growing up in my village, my father, who always appreciated Kathikali, gave me to the Kalamandalam which clothed and fed me and so because of a divine blessing, I became part of this world.”

He continues to live in the grounds of the school with his wife and children, still rising before sunrise to supervise classes. His passion is still strong and for him, the performance is tied up with his very being.

“I never feel the nerves after the makeup goes on because I then transform into the character I am playing… my favourite characters are ‘patchas’ - heroes. I can identify with their trials and tribulations. In the same way my life has been like this and in all the plays we can find consolation. We act the dreams of heroes”.

“I did some mainstream acting once in a Malayalam film. The dialogue was about God, so instinctively, as one does in Kathikali, I looked straight up to heaven… the director shouts ‘cut’ - said I wasn’t ‘natural’ - and I never did anymore of that acting… we are very stylised here and that is what I know…”.

For him, Kathikali represents the opportunity to act out life itself through the guise of the immortals.

India though is changing - like a giant waking from a sleep. The teachers have, like all elders, reservations about the level of sacrifice of this generation of students from the “Star TV” generation. Certainly there is less poverty in rural Kerala and more opportunities.

The students themselves are in no doubt however that Kathikali provides the link to their traditional culture that everywhere else is breaking down.

Suchindran is 18 and from a nearby district. He has been a student here for five years. Tall and delicate, he is seen as one of the promising new generation of performers.

“My friends think that I am somewhat mad - they are becoming engineers and such like and earning money, but I have my own ideas.”

“My father was a martial artist (the Keralan art of Kalarippayat) and he saw the value of Kathikali training in that - it’s precision of movement.”

At first he says, he was attracted by the fabulous costumes, by the thrill of the characters from childhood stories, but now,

“I see the value of acting these roles. The values of our plays are the values of an older India. In performance sometimes, my teachers show me a most difficult thing… in that moment… I can do everything correctly, yet I don’t know what it is I have done - it is something profoundly spiritual and I can be more than just myself.”

“One identifies with God when acting and you become that character… they work through you.”

Kathikali too, is changing however. The performances originally lasted all night - mostly now they are around two hours and even shorter when played for the tourists in the major cities.

“But look”, says Balasubramanian,

“It’s not so much that people are less cultured, more that the traditional audiences, never had to go to work or make a living.”

Now that Kathikali has come out of the centuries old temples it is by it’s nature having to change. A double-edged sword. Now that the majority of Keralans can see their “own” art forms, it has had to change with them as an audience.

On a lazy Sunday afternoon, some of the boys are watching the trains go by, opposite the sprawling 30-acre campus. It’s late afternoon and the sun is low and the lush colours of the Keralan countryside are deep and vibrant. They all wear the the lunghi, a white cloth wrap.

Arun is 19, slender and quite delicate looking.

“I play mostly women parts - because traditionally these are the first ones we learn because they are shorter and until we grow, we look more like women.”

He is very shy and talks almost in whisper. “My grandfather had been a Kathikali vocalist, so there was a tradition… I saw when I was young, one play with the role of the character ‘Karna’ - a very emotional role about the loss of family and decided that I wanted to perform. At first I was very homesick, but I still go home every second Saturday.”

Rajashakaran is a teacher and performer for more than twenty-five years is known internationally for his portrayal of women in his acting. Afternoon shadows are pouring through his kitchen and tea is brewing on the stove,

“it is more of a challenge and my face is good for it. When I am on stage in a women’s dress, I am a woman. My understanding of women has deepened and because of this I understand my wife better… ”.

He looks deadpan at his wife, who shakes her head and smiles. A private joke. She teaches female dance at the Kalamandalam, so they work together.

“All I have is due to Kathikali. Without this I am nothing, no expression, nothing.”

Back to the show. Backstage, Rajashakaran has just finished playing Draupadi, a role that he has played countless times. On stage there has been the bloody scene that the young boys were exited about, but now, in the make-up area, exhausted performers start to disrobe. Some smoke, some just lay still having their costumes heaved off and their makeup smeared away by the young apprentices. The actors are exhausted, almost like the Gods have left them and they’ve returned to their human form.

“Ah yes” says Rajashakaran, eyes closed sitting back against the wall,

“… very good tonight. The Goddess was there… ”.

© Stuart Freedman