Remembering the golden days of Kathakali

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Media captionMegha Mohan delves into the history of Kathakali

In the south Indian village of Vellinezhi something rare is happening - the villagers, hearing the drums, are making their way to an outdoor stage lit by brass lamps.

The dancer on the stage, in front of the drummers, wears a large carved wooden head dress for this performance of Kathakali, one of India's most recognisable male-led dance-dramas.

His eyes are wide and red, the contours of his face extended with a mask of moulded rice paper. His painted green face tells the audience he is their Sathwika, their hero.

Part-dance and part-mime, Kathakali originated in the state of Kerala between the 16th and 17th centuries, around the same time as Shakespeare. The Kalluvazhi Chitta style being performed by these dancers was born on the stage at the now-closed Kathakali school at Olappamanna Mana in Vellinezhi, almost 200 years ago.

It was originally taught in old live-in boarding schools, under the strict mentorship of a teacher, or ashan.

Image copyright Crystal Visual Media
Image caption Performances at the school in Vellinezhi are rare these days

"The Kalluvazhi Chitta style of Kathakali is distinct in the eye and feet movements. The dancer keeps their weight on the side of their feet, with the small toes bent, so that the strong steps don't cause a rush of blood to the head," says Olappamanna Damodaran, whose family ran the school (or Kaliyogam) in sleepy Vellinezhi until the 1940s.

But he and others worry the old style of the dance may be dying out.

The dancers I saw are the students of the school's final graduating class. And they aren't teaching anyone new.

Image copyright KK Gopalakrishnan

India's ancient dances

  • Kathakali ("story play") is a form of dance drama originating from Kerala
  • According to tradition, there are 101 classical Kathakali stories, although fewer than a third are performed on stage now
  • The story is enacted purely by the movements of the hands (mudras), facial expressions (rasas) and body movements - there are 24 basic mudras. Some characters adorn their left fingers with long steel or silver nails to enhance the clarity of the hand gestures
  • Actors wear a white facial border, or chutti, made of thick drawing sheets to focus attention on the inner face and eyes. Until the 1960s these were made from rice paper
  • Kerala has five other significant theatre traditions - Kutiyattam, and its allied forms Nangiarkoothu, Chakyarkoothu, Krishnanattam and Mohiniyattam
  • Kathakali is influenced by Hindu prayer rituals, like the Theyyam (pictured above), some thought to be around 2,000 years old

Olappamanna Mana is a 500-year-old feudal home. It holds particular significance for me.

"Your great-grandfather used to come here from a very young age. He performed here as a young Kathakali dancer and was later a visiting professor at our dance school," Mr Damodaran tells me.

Until his death in 1970, my great-grandfather was one of Kathakali's most well-known names. Guru Kunju Kurup won the Padma Buschan and Padma Shri, two of India's highest civilian awards, for his dancing.

Although he was commonly identified as an expert of the south Kerala style of the dance, the Thekkan style, his time at Olappamanna Mana made him fluent in the northern style, the Kalluvazhi Chitta.

Image copyright TS Nagarajan
Image caption Olappamanna Mana school ran up until the 1940s
Image copyright David Bolland Collection
Image caption Guru Kunju Kurup was a leading practitioner of Kathakali

There's only one student of Olappamanna Mana Kaliyogam who is still alive to remember the training first hand.

MN Paloor studied there as a young boy shortly before the school closed. In those days, a Kathakali dancer was trained for eight to 10 years.

"Training was very hard. Very hard. We woke up at 3.30am in the morning and started with our eye exercises. The teaching at Olappamanna Kaliyogam was strict and went on for more than 11 hours a day, but it resulted in the creation of great, strong Kathakali artists," MN Paloor tells me at his home in Calicut, a couple of hours away.

"There's a huge difference with the training now. You can't call it 'training' nowadays. Kathakali has been destroyed."

Image copyright Crystal Visual Media
Image caption MN Paloor is the only student of the school at Olappamanna Mana who is still alive

KK Gopalakrishnan, an author well known for his writings on Kathakali, agrees the old schools were rigorous.

"Strenuous physical training and beatings by the ashans were the hallmark of Kathakali training, to some extent till the late 1970s. The basic rule was to 'not spare the rod and spoil the child'.

"Absolute and unquestioning discipline was expected of students. Today, a trainer adhering to this old rule would end up behind bars!

"Therefore, trainers prefer sparing the rod at the expense of the future of the art and this change is inevitably reflected in the standard of the students' work. This affects both the quality of performance and the stage stamina."

Traditionally, Kathakali would be performed unrehearsed, on a stage level with the audience, at sunset, free of charge for locals. Patrons and feudal families would sponsor the dancers.

But Mr Gopalakrishnan says these days performances, which once lasted up to eight hours in order to tell the entire religious story, have been reduced to around two hours to cater for modern audiences. Although foreign tourists to Kerala can expect to pay 30,000-50,000 rupees ($430-$720 ; £300-£500) to watch a performance, junior dancers earn between 1,000-2000 rupees, he says.

Image copyright Crystal Visual Media
Image caption It takes hours for the dancers to be made up and get in costume

Changing feudal traditions in the 1940s meant that Mr Damodaran's family could no longer be trustees of the Olappamanna Mana Kaliyogam, and the Kathakali school closed.

Many of Olappamanna Mana's most famous teachers, including my great-grandfather, started teaching at larger institutions like the Kerala Kalamandalam University of Art and Culture. Initially, the style of teaching was true to the strict parameters of the old styles, but that changed.

"We've had to adapt with the times," says M Krishnakumar, who is head of the department of Kathakali at the Kerala Kalamandalam. "Training was intense in your great-grandfather's day. Back then, students had evening classes as well as day classes - sometimes they only slept for two hours at night before they were up to practice again.

"Now, you couldn't ask students to do that. Now we've cut down the hours students practice dancing and added classes in subjects like English and Hindi to give them a more rounded education.

"This change in teaching doesn't mean we still couldn't produce great Kathakali dancers. If Kathakali runs in your blood, you can still become a great artist."

Image copyright Olappamanna Mana family
Image caption The Olappamanna Mana family in their heyday

Back in Vellinezhi, Mr Damodaran, whose family now run a home stay on the 300-acre estate, isn't convinced.

"If Kathakali training is now a module, alongside other subjects like English and History, it means the art form is being diluted. And a dilution of a classical art means it is leading towards death."

But he says the style can still be preserved.

"If we have the will and support of the community. We could re-open the Kaliyogam here and teach the Kalluvazhi Chitta Kathakali here still, using local dancers who were taught by Olappamanna Mana alumni."

In the exact same strict style as before?

"Not the exact same way," he concedes, "but almost."

Image copyright David Bolland Collection

Archive video footage from the David Bolland Collection/Rose Bruford University. Photo of Olappamanna Mana school by TS Nagarajan - from his book Vanishing Homes of India, by permission of his family. Performance by the Kala Chethena Kathakali Company.

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