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Green Gods and Red Demons

February 2005
Green Gods and Red Demons

The Enigma of Kathakali

As the drums resonate and cymbals clank, a towering crown of shimmering gold and jewels emerges behind the quivering, splashy curtain. In the dim light of the ceremonial brass lamp the musicians begin the enchanting tune, unfolding the deeds of demons and deities. The unmatched resplendence of Kathakali casts a spell on the young western audience.

Kathakali, one of the oldest theater forms in the world, originated during the sixteenth and seventeenth century in Kerala, the coastal state of India. Literally meaning "story-telling", Kathakali combines facets of ballet, pantomime, opera and masque. This stylized theater form explicates stories from the Hindu mythology.

Kathakali has become internationally known for its uniqueness in the acting, presentation, make-up and costume. The plays which were enacted only in the temple premises are today rendered on Broadway dais to lecture halls in Universities around the world. The thematic dramas based on Indian epics have paved the way to Dramas based on Shakespearean and Greek stories. Today's Kathakali music has an ostensibly Carnatic touch unlike the yesteryears when the Sopana Sangeetham, a temple music tradition in Kerala formed its essence. Still, the original vitality and artistry of the ancient tradition is discernible.

Kathakali has evolved as a powerful visual language and the art lover can enjoy it without deciphering its language. Even today the highly formalized and abstract theatre continues to attract the connoisseur and the naive alike. How else would you describe the four decades relationship of Dr. Farley Richmond of University of Georgia with Kathakali and Koodiyattam, the forerunner of Kathakali? His association with Koodiyattam and Kerala Kalamandalam, the premier institution of Kathakali began in the 1960s. In one sentences he summarizes it all: "[In Kathakali] the epic characters [are] powerful and the music dynamic and impressive."

Dr. Philllip Zarrilli, an internationally acclaimed Professor of Drama explains his passionate feelings for Kathakali in his book "Kathakali Dance-Drama: Where Gods and Demons Come to Play" "[Kathakali is] an ocean of possibilities. Kathakali dance-drama is like a vast and deep ocean. Some may come to a performance with their hands cupped and only be able to take away what doesn't slip through their fingers. Others may come with a small vessel, and be able to drink that. And still others may come with a huge cooking pot and take away so much more."

Yes, the possibilities are endless as proved by Professor Catherine Freis who uses Kathakali while teaching Greek Tragedy at her school in Mississippi. She emphasizes the encompassing effects of this conventional theater which has greatly influenced the thrilling performances in the Greek Tragedy ?Les Atrides'.

Dr. Robert Brown, Director of Center of World Music, having heard about the upcoming Kathakali tour was overjoyed. "We presented the first tour of the United States by a Kathakali group in 1970," he ardently wrote to me," [And] it would be very appropriate for us to present your tour group now and, if we can swing it, we will do it again thirty-five years later."���

The metaphysical aura of Kathakali pervaded the art geniuses in India much before its advent on the Western horizon. Rukmini Devi introduced Kathakali at Kalakshetra and the male disciples were formally taught Kathakali. Dhananjayan, Balagopal, Kunhiraman, and Janardhanan learnt Kathakali and Bharatanatyam. Kathakali techniques are still used to portray heroic characters in the Bharatanatyam dance dramas and to add masculinity to the abhinaya. Rabindranath Tagore who revolutionized the cultural arena of Bengal borrowed the style and techniques of Kathakali in his acclaimed dance drama ?Chitrangada'. Uday Shankar incorporated Kathakali into his choreographic productions.

The eminence of Kathakali continues to entice the Non Indians and the doyens of theater and performing art groups but will it still remain incomprehensible to the people of India at large and remain marginalized in its country of birth? Will the Green Gods and Red Demons with their abstract dance capture your heart? Will the operatic music and the pulsating drumming ring in your ears? Will the long and painted quivering nails depicting the lustrous petals of lotus put a smile on your face or will they turn into the red long silvery claws of a ferocious demon to frighten you?���

- Manoj Kumar


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