By Tom Marshall, PhD Candidate in Anthropology
Kathakali is a Hindu temple acting tradition, originating in Kerala, South India. The repertoire of Kathakali are the stories from sacred texts such as the Mahabharata and Ramayana. I was first mesmerised by Kathakali when I saw a performance in 1995, lasting a few hours. I understood then from the pre-performance talk that the actors told stories through the movement of their bodies including complex face often frenetic eye movements. It takes years to hone Kathakali skills. When the HAPP Experience Team organised a one-hour Kathakali workshop in February 2021, I had to take part.
Students and lecturers joined our workshop tutors, Kalamnadalam Vijayakumar (Vijay) and Kalamandalam Barbara Vijayakumar (Barbara) via a zoom link to their studio – a performance room with no embellishments, simple grey fabric lined the walls. Vijay was not dressed like the performer in Image 1 or Vijay himself in Image 2 below. Barbara explained that “when an actor is in full costume they are no longer human but a representation of divinity. For that reason an actor cannot give a workshop or demonstration in costume. The spoken word is considered the language of humans and the Mudras [Kathakali sign language] are the language of the gods. The journey from dressing room to the stage is considered sacred as if the actor is travelling from heaven to earth during this time the actor must not be spoken to” (pers. comm.). Dressing in a full Kathakali costume and make-up takes hours of preparation. Kathakali make up varies greatly depending on the character being performed (Images 1 and 2). The application of Kathakali make up skills takes years to master and Image 2 showcases just one instance of Barbara’s mastery.
Vijay and Barbara introduced us to Kathakali, providing a brief history of the sacred art form before we had the opportunity to learn a short performance from the master, Vijay. He explained that each word in a story has its own Mudra, Kathakali sign-language. However, unlike the sign-language that we may be familiar with to a greater or lesser extent, Kathakali signing is elaborate. Arms, legs, cheeks and jowls, eyebrows and of course the eyes convey a story’s words. During the workshop, Barbara disappeared off screen and gave us useful explanations about the movements made by Vijay throughout the session. After a short demonstration by Vijay, for example, she asked if he had acted as male or female character. We were further introduced to feminine and masculine variations in Kathakali as the actors need to embody female and male movements with clarity. Traditionally, only males perform Kathakali, although some women have started to perform in India. Barbara is the first female Kathakali make-up [Chutti] artist.
During the one-hour workshop, we were taught to perform the phrase I am sad because the wind destroyed my flowers. Hand, arm, leg and face gestures ranged from the delicate opening of the flower to the flailing arms representing gusts of wind. The accompanying rapid eye movements where, as Vijay demonstrated, seemingly impossible for us beginners. His eyeball dexterity demonstrated his many years of training and performing. On explanation, some of the movements, such as ‘flower’ were self-explanatory. Conversely, the simple word ‘because’ involved intricate hand movements which at first was difficult to perform. Nevertheless, I think we arrived at an amateur compromise.
During the Q&A session after the workshop, Vijay and Barbara commented on the various ways in which they have adapted workshops, performances and costume displays to different contexts and settings across the UK. From 2010 onwards, they have also worked with Maruška Svašek, Reader in Anthropology at Queen’s University Belfast, on several of their Heritage Lottery funded projects (see Svašek 2016, especially page 9-13).
After seeing Kathakali performed in India, I thought that one-hour would be insufficient to learn anything more than one or two performative elements. However, Vijay is an expert performer and teacher. He carefully and slowly demonstrated each movement. We followed, repeated and repeated again. As we moved from one movement to another, I worried that I would forget them. However, Vijaya’s teaching expertise ensured that the movements were understood – the physical movements and their meaning. While I did not perform to Vijay’s standard, I thought I was not too bad.
The Kathakali workshop was a welcome distraction from the usual words on my computer screen and the digital pile of papers to read. It was an hour of creative movement that differed to my allocated daily exercise around the now too familiar local spaces. The workshop flexed my mind as I reminisced about seeing Kathakali performed in India – a creative distraction to my academic and lockdown routine. Hopefully, soon, we will meet and engage with Kalamandalam Vijayakumar and Kalamandalam Barbara Vijayakumar in person. On their website Vijay enacts all the words used in the Kathakali acting tradition, and the video was filmed, edited and scripted by Barbara who also produced the voice over. The product of their combined forces is an impressive achievement.
Svašek, Maruška 2016. Introduction. Creativity and Innovation in a World of Movement. In: Meyer, B. and Svašek, M. (eds). Creativity in Transition. Politics and Aesthetics of Cultural Production across the Globe. Oxford: Berghahn, Pp 1-32. Freely accessible at: https://www.berghahnbooks.com/downloads/intros/SvasekCreativity_intro.pdf