Kathakali: a synthesis of Indian Traditional Theatre and Revolutionary Thoughts!

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This is a paper I wrote on Kathakali, an art form, which has become a signature theatre in the global platform, today. It is a synthesis of Indian traditional theatre and revolutionary thoughts. Kathakali’s  genesis, growth and evolution and modern trends have been the topic of this study. 

1. Introduction
Kerala, the region which lies in the south western peninsula is the cultural hot spot of the Indian sub-continent. The political, social and economic changes that shook the whole sub-continent had the least impact on Kerala’s cultural heritage. Many art forms were reborn with new names during the post-colonial periods. Art and culture was resurrected from the fire of nationalism like a phoenix bird. Revolutionary ventures of art flourished as voices of our heritage to rekindle in every Indian, thoughts of patriotism and nationalism. Kathakaḷi was one such revolutionary art form which had roots in our ancient heritage, but emerged as an independent art 300 years ago.
2. Formative years
Kathakaḷi is a highly stylized dance drama tradition of Kerala, which emerged as an independent performance tradition in the mid-17th century. Kathakaḷi has absorbed various tenets from the social, religious and ritual theatrical forms that flourished in Kerala.
• The ritual dances associated with the Bhadrakali cult, with its larger than life portrayal through elaborate masks, face paints, head gears and costumes have had an impact on Kathakaḷi.
• Stories from Hindu epics which were retold satirically by the Chakyar community were initial steps in paving the way for artistic dialogues and a movement from ritual to drama. Their performance called ‘koothu’ also inspired Kathakaḷi.
• Koodiyattam, the oldest surviving Sanskrit drama was also a revolutionary crossover from ritual to drama. It had a highly developed system of sign language or hand and face gestures which also inspired Kathakaḷi.
• Kerala and Tamilnadu shared a common linguistic and cultural heritage. It was only after the 11th century that Malayalam emerged as a distinct literary language. Many works started being written in Malayalam and also in Manipravalam which was a combination of Malayalam and Sanskrit. This shift in the literary affinities was also a major factor in the popularity of Kathakaḷi as it directly communicated with the common man.
• The work, ‘Geeta Govinda’ by 12th century poet, Jayadeva Kavi created a big wave of devotion all over India. This Bhakti movement had a strong impact on the religious and cultural life of Kerala. The verses from ‘Geeta Govinda’ were included as regular worship in all temples and was called Ashtapati paadal or Kottipaadiseva in front of the sanctum sanctorum. These verses which were filled with Sringara Rasa was also performed in the name of Ashtapatiattam. Many elements of Astapathiattam are still retained in Kathakaḷi. Melapadam or Manjutaram is an initial act in Kathakaḷi which displays the proficiency of the singers and percussion artistes. For this, the verses from ‘Geeta Govinda’ beginning with “Manjutarakunjataka kelisadane…” is sung by the vocalists and at the end of each stanza the accompanying orchestra which includes the Chenda, Maddalam, Chengila and Elathalam perform together. This shows the links between Ashtapadiattam and Kathakaḷi.
• The performance tradition Krishnanattam has a direct influence on the form and technique of Kathakaḷi. Manaveda, who was a great devotee of Lord Krishna penned a Kavya in Sanskrit on the Life story of Krishna in 8 chapters called ‘Krishna Giti’ in 1652CE. He later held power as Zamorin of Calicut from 1655-1658 CE. His work ‘Krishna Giti’ was performed refining the techniques of Ashtapatiattam. Pure dance elements called Kalāśams which defined the finishing of every stanza was introduced in Krishnanattam. In 1660 CE, awed by the power and popularity of Krishnanattam, the King of Kottarakkara, invited the Krishnanattam troupe from Calicut to South Kerala for a performance. When the King of Calicut refused this invitation, King of Kottarakkara created a similar performance tradition based on the Life story of Lord Rama in Manipravalam, which also comprised of 8 chapters. He named it Ramanattam. When stories from other Puranas started being written, the name Ramanattam seemed inappropriate. The lyrics were called āṭtakatha and the performance was named Kathakaḷi meaning Story-play. Kathakaḷi today has grown into one of the most powerful mediums of storytelling in world theatre and holds centuries of tradition and culture.

3. Phase of Growth
Inputs from various stalwarts were responsible for the steady growth of the dance form Ramanattam to transform into the well acclaimed Kathakaḷi of today. Foremost among them were Vettathu Nattu Raja, Kaplingattu Namboothiri and Kalladikkottu Namboothiri. Their inputs into the art form developed into three different Sampradaya or styles.
3.1Major contributions of Vettattu Nattu Raja:
• Enhancing the aesthetic appeal of the art form by introducing more sophisticated head gears for the different characters and using Manayola stone for the face make up.
• Introducing a vocalist and relieving the performer from taking part in the musical rendition. This according to him enhanced the communication skills of the performer who could concentrate on Abhinaya.
• Enhancing the virile nature while portraying the male characters, by introducing Chenda as a percussion instrument along with Maddalam.
• Developing a stylistic variation in Kathakaḷi known as the Vettathunattu Sampradaya which was very popular in North Kerala.
3.2Major contributions of Kaplingattu Namboothiri:
• Stressing on the importance of using eyes in communication and sprouting of bhava or emotion within the performer to reach out more to the audience
• Improving on the Kalāśams by bringing in hand-body-eye coordination. Kalāśams were Nrṭta sequences which acted as punctuations between two verses.
• Introducing ćamaram (hair), kaćamani (dancing bells) as part of the costumes.
• Giving more clarity in the use of Hasta Mudras.
• Differentiating the make-up of specific characters using a combination of rice flour and lime for ćutti kuthal (thick white border framing the entire face from ear to ear) which was part of facial make up. This allowed for a three dimensional form.
• Formalizing the use of Alarća (inarticulate vocal sounds produced by the demonic and animal characters)
• Defining the theatrical possibilities of the Kathi (demonic) Character.
• Developing a performance methodology and forming a Kathakaḷi troupe which performed in various parts of Kerala thus promoting and popularizing the art form.

3.3Major contributions of Kalladikkodan:
• Enriching the Abhinaya based on the tenets specified in ‘Nāṭysāstra’
• Introducing a second musician called shinkidi who sang after the main musician who was called the ponnani.
• Developing the chuvadus ( movements of the feet)
3.4Royal patronage
Contributions and patronage from the rulers was monumental in the growth and popularity of Kathakaḷi. Prominent among them were:
• Kottayam Thamburam who was a great performer and composer. He wrote 4 Āṭtakathās for Kathakaḷi.
• Karthika Tirunal Rama Varma of Travancore penned 7 Āṭtakathās and popularized Kathakaḷi among common folk by arranging Kathakaḷi performances during festivals especially navaratri nights. His nephew Aswati Tirunal also wrote stories of rare merit.
• Veera Kerala Varma of Cochin maintained a troupe of Kathakaḷi performers and wrote numerous Āṭtakathās.
• Uttram Tirunal of Travancore too was a great patron of Kathakaḷi and his reign can be called the golden age of Kathakaḷi. He along with his court poets Irayamman thambi, Kilimanoor Koil Thamburam wrote several Āṭtakathās. Under his royal patronage the Kerala Vilas Press brought out an edition of 54 Āṭtakathās in print for the first time.
Many patrons, erudite scholars and connoisseurs of arts together were responsible for the genesis of a highly pantomimic art called Kathakaḷi.

4. Kathakaḷi: It’s Form
Even though Kathakaḷi is a theatrical form, it does not need much of theatrical props and décor. The external requirements for a performance are:
 Arangu-A space for performance around 10sq.feet
 Vilaḳku-a lighted traditional lamp which is a religious symbol and also sets the mood for Kathakaḷi with its incandescent luminance,
 Peetam – a small stool, which is used for many things like to rest on, to climb on like ascending a mountain, to lift up to showcase power and strength.
 Thiraśīla – A curtain which is held by two men which is held before every act.
A complete Kathakaḷi repertoire consists of various acts.
• Kelikotṭtu- A public announcement and invitation for the performance called Kēlikoṭtu is the initial act of performance, where all the percussion instruments are played. This is performed during the evening hours.
• Maddala kēli-The commencement of the performance is announced by a recital on the instruments Maddalam, cheṇgila and elathalam which is called Maddalakēli or Araṇgukēli.
• Tōdayam-This is followed by Tōdayam, which is an invocatory piece paying salutations to various Gods and Goddesses where the performers execute Nrṭta or pure dance behind the thiraśīla or curtain.
• Purappādu- This is followed by Purappādu or entry of the main or virtuous character.
• Manjūtaram- This is followed by a singing of the 17th Astapadi of the ‘Geeta Govinda’ called Manjūtaram or Meḷapadam which is followed by the presentation of the main story. Manjūtaram sets the whole stage for the surreal illusion which is to follow.
• Main Play- Two or three plays are enacted throughout the night. The last play usually ends with a violent battle that has good conquering evil. The victory of good along with the rising sun fills the audience with rejuvenated hope and faith in Goodness.
• Kummi-The female characters are introduced through a dance sequence called Kummi. Female characters in Kathakaḷi are always played by the males.
• Thiranōttam- The evil characters are introduced by a sequence called Thiranōttam when they keep peeping from behind the thiraśīla accompanied by terrific drumming.
• Dhanāsi-The end of the Kathakaḷi performance is marked by a pure dance sequence by the virtuous character where he thanks Gods for the night just passed and seeks His blessings. This is called Dhanāsi.

5. Phase of Decline
The colonial invasions into Kerala began with the Portuguese in the late 15th century, which was followed by the Dutch, French, English and Muslims. This created a political turmoil, but did not affect the socio- economic infrastructure. The King Marthanda Varma of Travancore (1729-1758CE) had annexed enough land and wealth and concentrated the power in Travancore. Despite political upheaval, the socio-economic unit of ‘house and land’ was conserved among the royal and Namboothiri families’ up to the late 19th century. Thus the socio-economic support for the patronage of arts remained secure. Kathakaḷi flourished due to patronage from Kings and feudal Lords and due to its live presence within the temple precincts. The contributions and patronage by the Travancore royalty was most notable in transforming it into a thriving art form. There has been constant process of innovation since its inception. After the death of Uthram Tirunal in 1861CE, there was a decline in the patronage for Kathakaḷi. The period 1860-1930CE has been a period of decline and eventual breakdown in traditional patronage. Early 20th century saw a decline in all art forms due to socio-political and economic reasons. The British Invasion, social reform movements and change from the old socio-economic order had its impact on all cultural life of Kerala. Royal and land owning households could no longer afford to patronize the troupes. Even though patronage reduced drastically a few Kaḷiyogams (Kathakaḷi groups) and Namboothiri families still kept the flame of Kathakaḷi from extinguishing.
6. Phase of Revival
Mahakavi Vallathol who was part of the nationalistic movement took great pride in Kerala’s heritage and art forms. He along with Mukunda Raja organized fund raising performances in 1923, 1924 and 1925. Fundraising performances helped in gathering the corpus for officially opening the new institution called Kerala Kalamandalam on November 9th, 1930 at Mukunda Raja’s uncle’s residence. Despite the shortage of funds and several relocations, Mahakali Vallathol’s vision still attracted the best teachers of Kathakaḷi. Kunju Kurup, Ambu Panicker, Koppan Nair, Pattikkamthodi Ramunni Menon, Kavalppara Narayanan Nair, Kadambur Gopalan Nair were the masters who were brought under one canopy to work for a noble cause. In 1936, a permanent site was acquired from the Government of Kochi. It was only after India’s Independence struggle when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru visited Kalamandalam in 1955 for its Silver Jubilee celebrations, assistance and national recognition reached Kalamandalam. Jawahalal Nehru donated 1 lakh for development and Central Sangeeth Nataka Academy gave grants for the institution. By 1957, it was placed under the Kerala government which appointed an advisory committee to carry out the administrative work. Eventually Kerala Kalamandalam which was just a dream of Vallathol and Mukunda Raja became a grant -in-aid institution which was a centre for revival, reconstruction and resurgence of Kerala’s traditional art forms.
A scheme of scholarship was instituted by Vallathol during the initial years for students to take up Kathakaḷi training at Kalamandalam. Kathakaḷi troupes were slowly raised with performances in and outside India. The three styles or Sampradayas of Kathakaḷi which originally existed were consolidated. The Kallatikkodan style and Vettat style together became the composite Kalamandalam style. Kaplingattan style continues today as the southern style. More innovations and changes were brought in, within the teaching methodology at Kalamandalam. There was further codification of the physical exercises. The movements were more controlled and the performances showcased a reserved distance between the performer and the audience. The southern style seemed to be freer, less confining and allowed greater scope for individual variation. There was lesser emphasis on classroom training and the performer seemed to be more connected to the audience.
More groups and kaḷiyōgams started institutionaling Kathakaḷi. For eg. Margi in Thiruvananthapuram in 1974 envisioned by Theatre personality Appukuttan Nair. Training in the ancient gurukula pattern was given under eminent Gurus like Mankullam Vishnu Namboothiri and Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair. Art lovers and connoisseur M K K Nayar started a Fine arts Wing to impart part time training in Kathakali and other traditional arts and popularized Kathakali by organizing tours and many stage performances.
7. Formal training
A student of Kathakaḷi had to undergo a minimum of 6 years rigorous training before he could be a full-fledged performer. The ideal season to begin training is at the onset of monsoon. The basic techniques are similar to Kalarippayattu training. The body exercises and massage exercises render the body supple and flexible. Through rigorous training the human body is remodeled to cast itself into the actions fit for Gods and Demons. The pupil is then taught the eye exercises and is trained to speak with the eyes. Independent movements of the facial muscles like cheek, lips, eyebrows and eyelids is taught which is followed by movements of the hands, wrists and then the hand gestures. Chuzhippūs are twisting and turning exercises for the entire body accompanied by face and hand gestures which are preparatory movements that helps the dancer to gain perfect balance. The narrative passages are first practiced by portrayals with the eyes and later with the gestures and movements. Foot work patterns and tāla sequences of various speeds are mastered. Pure Nrtta pieces like Tōdayam and Purappādu are taught. Students learn the āṭtakathās of the performance by memorizing the entire play. Strenuous practice of acting accompanied by music and rhythm called ćolliāṭtam is the next step of training. Throughout the entire training process the students learn from their teachers, through their own initiative, from the epic and puranic characters they encounter as they internalize them and above all from observing their teachers, peers and other performances. Mastery over all these makes a consummate performer.
8. Kathakaḷi: a Story- Play
Kathakaḷi is thus a confluence of dance, pantomime, religious inspiration and mythological tradition. It tells a ‘Katha’ or story through ‘kali’ or play. An analysis of this performance tradition with the help of Nāṭyaśāstra can help us trace most of the elements of Kathakaḷi to this oldest extant text on dramaturgy. Like every performance tradition, the main purpose of Kathakaḷi is Rasaniśpathi or emergence of Rasa in the Rasika or audience. To achieve this end, stories from well-known epics like Ramayana, Mahabharata and other Puranic stories and retold to spread the values of Dharma, righteousness and faith. Kathakaḷi as a performing tradition in its stages of evolution has conceptualized freedom and on many occasions deterred from the tenets of Nāṭyaśāstra. But it still remains the most dominant theatre art form which is a beautiful amalgam of Nāṭya (histrionics), Nṛtta (pure dance), Nṛtya (expressions), Gīta (music), Vadya (instruments), narrative artistry and painting.
The most prominent tool in Kathakaḷi for retelling these stories is Chaturvidha Abhinaya or four-fold expression which leads the audience more closely to aesthetic enjoyment. The four fold expressions are: Angika( body movements), Vachika (speech), Aharya(costumes), Satvika(emotional content).
The Angika Abhinaya pertains to the use of the whole body to deliver the appropriate emotion. This is a combination of facial expressions, gestures, movements and mime. Ancient martial art of Kerala, Kalarippayattu is the heart of Kathakaḷi’s technique. Kathakaḷi also has a highly developed and extensive sign language which offers word to word synchronization of the verbal text. The encyclopedia referred to for the use of gestures in ‘Hasta Lakshana Deepika’ penned by an unknown author. The nomenclature of the Hastas in this text differs from the ones specified in ‘Nāṭyaśāstra’. But it would be interesting to note that the Hastas depicted by Kartika Tirunal Maharaja in his work ‘Balaramabharatam’ who himself was a great patron of Kathakaḷi is in tune with ‘Nāṭyaśāstra’. The difference might be due to the lack and gap in understanding that might have crept in during the period of decline when the study of ‘Nāṭyaśāstra’ was almost forgotten. In Kathakaḷi language of gesture one hasta could be perceived in numerous ways and there are even gestures specifies for ‘ifs’, ‘buts’ and ‘therefores’. Gestures are adapted at two levels. Firstly they are used to demonstrate the dialogues. This is called ćolliāṭtam. These are performed at various levels. The slow paced demonstration is called Pathinjattam where the gestures are validated in minute detail. The medium tempo is more commonly used and in order to show scenes like battle and confrontation the gestures are shown in quick succession. Each verse is marked by pure nṛtta elements called Kalāśams which differ according to the type of character.
Yet another way of adapting gestures is for Ilakiyāṭtam. This also shows the proficiency of the performer’s mastery over the language of gestures. Here the acting takes place without vocal support. This is often used to enact ideas or portions which the lyricist has left out. It could be narrations or recollections or some remarks.
Vachika abhinaya is established through the verbal text called āṭtakatha which is sung by the two vocalists in the Sōpana Sangeetha tradition characteristic of Kerala traditional music. The verbal text is transformed into gesture language which is decoded by the audience. The performer uses the starting of a line to unravel various possibilities according to his imagination. For example, in the āṭtakatha ‘Kalyana Saugandhikam’ Draupadi sends Bhima to bring her a flower. The line might mean, ‘Bhima went to the forest…’ The performer is free to use his sense of appropriateness and elaborate on this context. He can elaborate on the thick dense forest, the greenery, the animals which inhabit the forest, the sounds of the forests, the life in the forest, the moments of the animals like to deer, elephant, peacock, hunting scenes and much more. All this can accentuate the storyline. This is also called Pakarnnāṭtam where one single actor transits between different characters. The musical rendering is supported by the instruments, the chenda, maddalam, elathalam, chengila and idaikka.
Aharya Abhinaya or the costumes in Kathakaḷi are used to intensify the superhuman personality of the characters. The hefty garments, elegant scarves, heavily plaited skirts, magnificent head dresses, well designed ornaments, mask-like make up all put together transports the audience to a surreal existence. The Aniyara or dressing room is considered sacred where the human beings do pātrapravēśam (transform into their character). Characters in Kathakaḷi are defined by the makeup. There are three basic types of characters:
 Satvic – meaning the heroic, pious and virtuous
 Rajasic- meaning the passionate heroic, yet aggressive
 Tamasic – meaning the demonic, rude and evil.
These character types are further subdivided and represented by colours. This visual language informs the audience of each characters nature. In Kathakaḷi they are differentiated as five character types.
• Paccha- Righteous and dignified
• Kathi- Proud, aggressive, unrighteous
• Tadi- This has three variations.
 Red (violent, demonic);
 White (Mythical, half-human Gods),
 Black(Aborigines, evil)
• Minukku- Gentle and spiritually oriented characters like the Brahmins, women, and messengers.
The seed of a flower called Chundapoo is put inside the eyes to turn it red. This gives a superhuman character to the performers. This is removed after the performance. The unique head gears for each character type called mudis and the chuttis for the virtuous characters are all features specific to Kathakaḷi.
Kathakaḷi has a highly stylized technique to invoke the Bhava called Rasābhinaya where the performer has to internalize with the emotions of the character in order to bring out subtler levels of meaning and emotions. Evoking of subtler emotions within and transporting it to the audience is the Satvika Abhinaya which Kathakaḷi performers employ.
9. Conclusion
Among all the theatre and dance forms of India Kathakaḷi stands out in prominence. It is an art form which reflects both tradition and modernity. It has absorbed all the regional flavours and cultural values of the land of its origin and combined it with the spirit of freedom and revolutionary thought to result in a magical and majestic form. Though the theme is centered on epics and puranas, modern themes and Shakespearean plays have been experimented in recent times. Evolution in the form and content which began since its inception and which continues is the main reason behind this thriving world theatre.



Glnn, John. “Kathakali- A study of the aesthetic processes of popular spectators and elitist appreciators engaging with performances in Kerala.” Department of Performance studies, Faculty of arts, sydney (Dec 2001). Thesis.

Meaden, Wendy. “An introduction to Kathakali Costume.” Theatre Design and Technology (2013): vol 49.

Namboothiripaad, Leela. Kerala kalamandalam. Thrissur: Kerala Kalamandalam, 1990.

P, Mohan Kumaran. “Deviations of Kathakali Dance from Natyasastra.” Sangit Galaxy Vol 3 ( Jan 2014): 28-39.

Pandeya, Gyanacharya Avinash C. The Art of Kathakali. Allahabad: Kitabhistan, Sammelan Mudranalaya, 1941.

Pillai, G Ramakrishna. Kathakali. Trivandrum: University of Travancore, 1957.

Pisharody, K. P. Narayana. Bharatamuni’s NatyaSastra. Thrissur: Kerala Sahitya Academy, 1987.

Rajasekharan, Kalamandalam. Kathakaliyile Streekathapatrangal. Thrissur: Kerala Kalamandalam, 2008. Malayalam.

Vallathol, Mahakavi. Hasthalakshana Deepika. Thrissur: Kerala Kalamandalam, 2001.

Zarrilli, Phillip. The Kathakali Complex: Performance and Structure. Abhinav Publications, 1984.



Jottings from Dr. Swapna Sundari’s talk “We pray this way”

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The second day of the conference was on Rhythm in Devotion.

Dr. Swapna Sundari gave an enriching, educational and elevating talk on “Vilasini natyam: We Pray This Way”. She commenced her talk with the question,

“What is Prayer?”

“It was the submission of the intellect, ego and spirit to the unseen, higher force” She said.

“Which way do we pray?”`

“In any way that induces equanimity and harmony. The lifetime of dancers and musicians is spend in the idea of prayer”, She said.

Snippets from her talk

  • Vilasini natyam is a representation of the art of Telugu temple dancers.
  • It was an integral part of prayer in temples.
  • The prayers offered through vilasini natyam are tala centric.
  • The word TALAM is a combination of two words Ta and La. It represents the union of Shiva and Parvathy. ‘Ta’ stands for Shiva and ‘La’ for Parvathy. ‘ta’ was the first sound that pierced Primordial Silence. It is also the first sound taught in the percussion instrument, Mridangam.
  • Tandava which evolved frim’Ta’ is today inadequately translated as Vigour. Similarly the term Grace does not adequately express Lasya.
  • Even when you speak the syllables ‘ta’ and ‘la’ there is a difference is the force with which you strike the tongue.
  • Rhythm is inherent in the Universe. Not all human beings hear rhythm because, not all are close to Nature. Jarava Tribe, the aboriginal inhabitants of Andaman and Nicobar Islands lived very close to Nature. They predicted the Tsunami after pressing the ears to the ground and the whole tribe moved away from the sea and took refuge on tree tops and mountains. This was the only group which was saved from the repercussions of Tsunami.
  • The rhythm in a human body begins when the foetus attains viability. There is pattern or pramanam in the pumping of heart. Similarly in a tala there is Chandas which are the patterns or pramanas.
  • In temples of Andhrapradesh, the four main elaborate rituals which was accompanied by Geeta, vadya and nrtta were: Dhwajarohanam(hoisting of flag),Devatarpanam( salutations to various gods),Bheritadanam(paying obeisance to deities of Directions), Baliharanam( sacrificial offering)
  • Various olden talas which have never been in use now were discussed in brief. The talams like Maddya talam that we use today was used in a very different connotation in the olden system. The same talam has different variants.

Dr. Swapna Sundari introduced various new talas , which was demonstrated by her disciple Dr. Anupama Kailash. Researches like these also bring to the fore the Unity in Tala systems across various regions in Bharata. The similarity in names and variety in different regions also vouches for the unity in variety that existed in our cultural scenario.

Rhythm and Vibes- 33 rd Natya Kala conference: Jottings of a Rasika

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Today was the 1st day of the annual Natya Kala Conference. The topic for the conference was “Rhythm and Vibes” and this conference was trying to stimulate talks on manifestation of Rhythm in all artistic endeavours . This conference was convened by Smt Priyadarshini Govind.The conference was inaugurated by the Bharatanatyam Maestro C.V Chandrasekhar who gave a brief and thought provoking talk on Rhythm in Bharatanatyam as his inaugural address. Some of his thoughts which stayed with me even after the talk:

  • There is a difference between Rhythm and talam. While talam is a cyclic pattern of keeping time, Rhythm is a constant. We are all born with a rhythm.
  • Today’s Bharatnatyam dancers are trying to overdo much more than the style requires, in the name of evolution, change and growth.
  • There is no necessity to dance to the taniyavarthanam which is executed in the Mridangam chollus. The dance loses its beauty.

This was followed by felicitating Dr. Sunil Kothari , art critic and writer  and a thank you note from Y. Prabhu.

The first session of the conference was a Thidambu Nrttam performance. Though it was exciting to see a not so heard about ritual dance on stage, I felt deeply that it was not right to bring this temple ritual out of its context on to stage. Every art form in India has a purpose and in the case of Thidambu nrttam it was purely ritual and spiritual. It is a dance performed by the Namboothiri priest holding an image of the deity on his head in the temples of North Malabar. The various permutations and combinations of talas are executed by the Namboothiri. The rhythms have an arithmetic progression which has a hypnotic effect. A conference which was held to initiate a dialogue on rhythms started with many things untold. A good introduction on the art form was missing, due to which there was a gap between the performer and the audience. A ritual dance to fulfil its purpose should establish a deep connection between the performer, onlooker and the deity which was not possible in the precincts of a sabha. Within a short span the audience were distracted after trying hard to decipher meaning from the repetitive movements and rhythmic patterns. The venture to introduce the intricate talas to the art lovers has to be appreciated but, it would have been fruitful if it had been a scholarly paper presentation with good documentation to create awareness on there various art forms. In the case of the ritual dance unlike the other classical dances, the crowd has to go to the context and partake in the ritual. It should not be brought to the level of art appreciation and analysis.

The second session was “Alar cha: Rhythm in invocation” a lec dem  by the  Parashah, the foursome alchemists of art, comprising of the Srikanth, Aswathy, Priya Murle and Roja Kannan. Theirs was a confluence of three different schools of Bharatnatyam and they beautifully gave short descriptions to the opening pieces like, alarippu,Pushpanjali todayamangalam , mallari, Nandi Chollu, Kriti. “Bharatanatyam is not fossilised”, said Priya Murle , “it changes with vicissitudes of time”.

Alarippu she said helps the dancer settle into the space of dance, starting with the movements of the eyes, neck, shoulders arms and slowly introducing the adavus. Many variations have been introduced in the execution of Alarippu. Thiruppukazh hymns were sung along with Alarippu, Mayura alarippu introduced by Rama Vaidhyanathan etc. They danced to an alarippu in  the Tisra Dhruva Talam

Todaya mangalam was introduced by Roja Kannan . She said it belonged to the Bhajana Sampradayam tradition and was not initially meant to be danced but only to be sung. Todayam as introductory items are presented in Kathakali and Melattur Bhagavatha melam

Commencement of procession of a deity through a Mallari was introduced by Srikanth.He said there are specific Mallaris to specific deities. This was followed by a demonstration of Nandi Chol, dancing to the various syllables (ta di dhom nam) played by the Nandi on his mridangam. This was followed by a demonstration of Nataraja Kautvama and a swati tirunal kriti. As Aswathy stressed the various rhythms were interspersed in the kriti in such a way not to hinder with the lyrics and its meaning.The final piece was a short invocation from their production Mathrudevo Bhava.The energy and vibes of the rhythms were contagious.

I was expecting academic papers and ensuing dialogues through Natya kala conference. Hoping the following days in the conference will quench my thirst.

Bharata and Ilango

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Dr. Nagaswamy is a doyen in the field of archaeology, history and many arts. He recently gave a lecture on “Bharatamuni and Ilangovadigal” under the auspices of Bharata Ilango Foundation for Asian Culture on 15th June. Dr. Padma Subrahmanyum the main torch bearer of the BIFAC foundation introduced the topic and the speaker. She said how the chapter “Arangetrakadai” in Ilangovadigal’s epic “Silappadikaram” establishes a strong link to Bharatamuni’s “Natyasastra”. She said the “Lakshana” given in Natyasastra has attained “Lakshya” in “Silappadikaram”. The name “Arangam” in “Silappadikaram” itself has been taken from its sanskrit equivalent in Natyasastra “Ranga”. Tamil Grammar entails the addition of a prefix thus making “Ranga”, “Aranga”. Rangam which means the space for performance is used in the Tamil work “Tolkappiyam” as “Aadukalam”.

In the chapter Arangetrakadai, Ilangovadigal mentions how a dancer should have mastery in “Pindiyum Pinayalum Ezhirkaiyum Tozhir Kaiyum”. Dr.Padma Subrahmanyum explained how these words have parallels in Bharatamuni’s “Natyasastra”. “Pindi” denotes group Dance, “Pinayal” means chaining i.e., the dance where dancers are expected to dance in close proximity. “Ezhir Kai” meant Nritta Hastas and “Tozhir Kai” meant Abhinaya Hastas. “Natyasastra” equates the dance performed in Purvaranga to a yagna and calls it Cittira Purvaranga. Madhavi of Silappadikaram is said to have performed Cittira Karanam and this might have meant the Purvaranga or invocation as mentioned in “Natyasastra”. Madhavi is also bestowed the “Talaikol” after the performance of Mandila. “Mandala” according to “Natyasastra” means the combination of 8-10 charis (Natyasastra alludes to 16 Bhumi charis and 16 Akasha charis). “Silappadikaram” also mentions that Madhavi was given Talaikkol as she danced according to Nattiya nannul or in adherence to the Sastra of Natya. Thus introducing the subject for the evening lecture Dr. Padma Subrahmanyum also demonstrated how the same lyrics should be danced in a group and how it can be danced individually. She said such nuances are also given in Natysastra.

Dr. Nagaswamy , then took forward the discussion. He said that our Indian culture is an integrated culture. Bharatamuni’s “Natyasastra” which can be placed in 2nd century BC and Ilangovadigal’s “Silappadikaram” which can be placed 300years later show many links. “Silappadikaram” follows the ancient tradition of commencing and ending the work by extolling the greatness of the King. Silappadikaram extols the greatness of Cheran Chenguttavan. According to Dr. Nagaswamy, Silappadikaram is a beautiful creative poetry and not history as is widely believed. He reiterated that “Silappadikaram” is a Lakshya Grantha based on “Natyasastra” which is a Lakshana Grantha.


The concept of geographically dividing the land into tinais and the various tinai cultures appear in “Silappadikaram”. Even Bharatamuni says that the theatre is symbolically divided into different parts called” kaksha paridis”. Characters representing each tinai enacted from his/her kaksha or boundary. The audience thus knew from which region each character belonged.
The main plot of “Silappadikaram” was taken from much earlier works like “Purananuru”. The poet Kapila narrates the story of Bega whose wife isKannagi . Kannagi is abandoned by her husband as he has an affair with another girl. This very story of Kannagi is again repeated by the poet Paranar. Dr. Nagaswamy goes on to say that there were almost 5 poems on Kannagi before Silappadikaram.Ilangovadigal takes the cruz of his story from here and he also takes inspiration from stories in Panchatantra. This again reaffirms the faith that “Silappadikaram” was creative poetry according to Dr. Nagaswamy.

Vrittis according to “Natyasastra” means modes of expression. According to the zonal tastes, the modes of expression vary. Ilangovadikal in his “Silappadikaram” prescribes vrittis for each of his sections. The first canto on Poompuhar , he says should be using the bharati vritti. The second section dealing with Madurai should be enacted in Arabhati and satvati and the Vangi canto should be in Kaisiki vritti.

Dr. Nagaswamy said all these and many more evidences in the “Silappadikaram” proves the adherence to “Natysastra” and that Natyasastra was a common text. He asked the students and seekers of truth to approach this topic intellectually and not emotionally.
The talk was indeed a very thought provoking one. The holistic and all inclusive approach towards life which our ancestors had is missing among today’s generation.

A lightning visit, but an enlightening one!


A lightning visit….. Everything happened in quick succession, that there was no respite for me to think. My PNR status climbed from Waiting list to RAC to Confirmed, at the nick of time. I packed two change of clothes, my camera and a scribble pad and rushed on time to catch my train. This was my second such field visit that lead me to remote villages. Last time it was to Melattur in Thanjavur to experience Bhagavatha Melam and the now I was off to Kadalimangalam to experience yet another ritual dance of Kerala. The memory of the last visit still lingered and urged me to look out for more such treasures. It opened doors to age old traditions and this thought of being able to experience a ritual dance itself was inviting and exciting.

But this time there was one more surprise waiting for me. Ramamangalam, the birth place of the musical genius Shadkala Govinda Marar was hosting a seminar in connection with the 60 years of uninterrupted tradition of the young and graceful dance form, Mohiniyattam. Being a student of this dance, I happily took a detour and headed for the Ramamangalam sojourn.

Even though I couldn’t stay on for the whole seminar, the half day events gave me enough food for thought to last a life time. The wisdom that spontaneously emerged out of the masters was thought provoking.

Food for thought:

  • “Music tries to conceal something always. Dance tries to reveal the mystery that music tries to create”.
  • “Dancers are athletes of God”
  • “Variations should be our strength, not our weakness”.
  • The pioneering spirit of Kunjan Nambiar is still alive as, it was this great Master who showed us the richness and depth of Kerala’s culture and rhythm. “Vyaasoochistham” , meaning the the leftover of Vyaasa. Similarly, whatever little we know of the Kerala tala patterns was introduced to us by the great Kunjan Nambiar and what we use today is the “Uchishta” or left over of that great contribution.
  • Our dance forms are not just a mimesis of the world outside. The 10th century philosopher Abhinavagupta, gives a very good insight into this in his commentary on Natyasastra. He says it is not just Anukaranam(Imitation) or Anukeertanam (re creation) but anukriti of an “Avastha” ( state or condition) , which is “ Anuvyavasaayam”(an inter relation)..
  • Once, a frog goes to a Cuckoo bird to learn music. Cuckoo’s father, advises his son not to accept the Frog as a student. But the young Cuckoo has a mind of his own. He thinks, that art is limitless and to deny it to the frog is not right. The proud cuckoo also believes that it is his song which onsets the arrival of spring.Now, the frog is also very proud of his voice and he believes that his sound is nothing less than the “pranavaakaram” or the chant of OM ,which invites rain. The Proud Cuckoo and the proud frog start their music lessons. “Sa Ri Ga Ma Pa Da Ni … sings the cuckoo bird in the right pitch. The frog repeats all the swaras in the same monotonous pitch. Cuckoo is unable to correct the proud frog. After many such sessions the Cuckoo’s music also transforms like the frogs music.Folk lore has it that this is how the first crow was formed. This might be a simple folklore but let’s think it over and we will see that it has umpteen meanings to offer. The moral of the story is for each of us to reflect.

After scribbling these thoughts in my memory pad, I headed to my next treasure ground, the village of Kadalimangalam to interact with my past.

Natyasastra Workshop at Kalakshetra By Bharat Gupt:Part 4


There are two “ Sidhis”, or ultimate reaction received from the Prekshaka or Audience.

1. Manushi Sidhi- This is expressed through clapping of hands or encouragement from audience with “Bhesh!” or “Aho”.

2. Daivi Sidhi- This is at a very higher level where the audience are mesmerized beyond words and they elevate to a higher plane forgetting them. There is no outward expression of joy but completion of an inner journey.

Bharat Guptji then explained in great detail the “Dhruv Gaan” or the various kinds of Dhruvas sung and enacted to arouse and manipulate emotions and thought in the audience. He said” Song is the couch on which Natya is seated.” Dhruva are symbolic rendering which are used to introduce the qualities of a character. They brought on to stage the whole world of Nature as “upamaa” or similies. In ancient times, Nature was not distant from human life. Nature was also embedded with human emotions.

Music we find in NatyaSastra was not crude, as many imagine. Science of Music was highly developed and very well laid down. The fundamental method of creating a Raga was done even in those times, even though , ragas were known as”Jaatis”.

Then Bharat Guptji discussed a very important point.
Who should be a good audience? How should they watch it?

The audience should be “Sumanasaha Purushaha”- those who have a good mind, that is receptive. Bharat Guptji , explained further by citing examples from Kalidasa’s “Abhijnana Shakunthalam”. Kalidasa’s Shakuntalam was a digression from the original version of the story in Mahabharata, he said. When the play was first staged, there must have been reactions and responses which were not so positive. But it has remained till today ,passing the test of time and today we hardly remember the original version. Citing this example, Bharath Guptji said that the audience and rasika’s should have an open attitude and clean heart to first take in any new innovations in art. He said, “Partake of the food that is served to you and then say whether that is good or bad”.

Is there a Bhakti Rasa?

Bharat Guptji said that Bhakti was a relationship. It can arise in any relationship he said.
He cited the example of Jayadeva’s Geeta Govinda, where the poet invites people to listen to him. Yadi Hari Smaranee Sarasam mano…”…… The poet says if your mind dwells on the thought of Hari then come and listen to me, if not still you are welcome to enjoy my poetry if you are interested in “vilaasakala” (erotic interest). He introduces himself as “Padmaavathy Charan Chaaran Chakravarthy” meaning he is the King among the servants of Padmavathy) Here Padmavathy refers to Radha. Here it can be interpreted as Bhakthi and Sringar at the same time. It is the story of Radha and Krishna . They are not ordinary Nayak and nayika. It is divine “Sadharaneekarana”. Personality totally disappears into Divinity. This kind of relationship can also be found in the “Tatsambhaav” of Meera Bhai. Another Bhakthi relationship is that of a sakhi or friend, who is content to look upon the love of Radha and Krishna and experience”Tatsukheebhaava”.

Bhakti Bhakt Bhagavanth Guru

Naam Chathura Vapu Eek”  meaning Bhakti, Bhaktha, Bhagavan and Guru are one and the same though we call them by different names.


Natyasastra workshop at Kalakshetra by Bharat Gupt: part 3

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After the second day’s discourse on Rasa, Bharat Guptji took us further into the Rasa theories as interpreted by four main commentators.

What creates Rasa? Who experiences it?, Is it created or is it already there?

There are four interpretations in History on Rasasoothra. This was a very interesting session where Bharat Guptji, explained the various “vaada” or interpretations of the four commentators on Rasa.


Lollat– Lollat’s works have not been preserved, but we still can spot him in other texts. In our literary and philosophical traditions, none of the schools or individuals was misrepresented. The ideas of the opponent school of thought were clearly stated before refuting or affirming with the thought. He said the nature of the sthayi bhava is ” Vasana” or deep rooted desire, which goes from one life time to another. Therefore it is only this sthayi bhava which is capable of transfeferring into Rasa. He said both Vibhava and Anubhava are superficial drives, which only act as a catalyst to stimulate the reaction. His formula was “Upachitha( combined with catalyst) + Anusandaanbala(power of concentration)” makes the transference of Sthayi Bhavas in Rasa possible. Therefore Vasanas or the deep rooted desire in the spectator becomes important. His interpretation is called “Uthpatti Vaada”.


Shankuk– He says , the “Anukarana roopaka” or the imitation of the Sthayi Bhava is converted into Rasa. He makes it clear that it is not the emotion and thought but the imitation of the emotion and thought, that is converted into Rasa. Shankuk explains the “Prateeti” or resemblances of 4 kinds:Samyak, Mithya, Samshay and Saadrishya. On stage the Nata or actor has become a character and his actions generate these above mentioned “Prateetis” in the audience. Rasa therefore belongs to the art form which creates this vilakshana prateeti and Shankuk’s interpretation is called “Anunitivaada”.


Bhattanayak- He shifts the focul point to the audience.He also analyses the psychology of the “prekshaka” or audience. The experience of watching Natya in a theatre house is completely different from watching it alone or watching it with a very few people. There is a sense of Universalization when we watch Natya in a bigger group. This Universalization is called “Sadhaaraneekarana” by Bhattanayaka. This happens due to the agency of Vibhavas. Stage is a place where you react, but this reaction is unlike our reaction in real life. It is not a personal reaction. In art there is unalloyed “Ananda” or expansion happening. This expansion is called”Bhavakatva” Where Bhavakatva happens there is a subduing of Rajo and Tama gunas. This creates a peaceful delight akin to the joy of knowing the Supreme. This joy is said to be “Brahmaananda Sahoodara” . This Bhavakatva is tasted by the spectator and is now”Bhojakatva”. According to Bhattanayaka Rasa is pre-existent.


Abhinavagupta– AbhinavaGupta fully agrees with Bhattanayaka’s “vaada” of “Saadharaneekarana” and reaffirms that it is the most cardinal for Rasa. He says the Vibhavas, Anubhavas and Sanchari Bhavas are obstruction removers from the eternal primordial Vasana which is within us. According to him the innermost consciousness is enjoyed by Rasa.


Bharat Guptji, next lingered on the topic of Dharmi’s: Lokadharmi and Natyadharmi. These are the two different modes of portrayal of Natya. Natyadharmi is, a stylised rendition of Angika and Lokadharmi is when we discard this stylisation and act with less angika. Bharat Guptji, pointed out that Lokadharmi as realistic portrayal of the outside world is a misinterpretation. Natya can never be realistic he said. The word “realism” itself is a recent addition to the art arena, being first used as a literary movement in 19th century.


Bharat Guptji then pondered on the disappearance of Multi lingual theatres from Indian art. He said there was an uninhibited intermingling and blending of both Sanskrit and regional Prakrits. There was no drama with only one regional language. Dividing ourselves based on language is doing a great harm and damage to our rich tradition.Kathakali Guru Sadanam Blakrishnan, who was among the participants added that even in Kudiyattam of today, we can see Sanskrit, Malayalam and Manipravalam.


Linguistic variety prevailed. There were languages which kept changing with time, but there was a conscious decision made by scholars of yore to keep Sanskrit unchanged. It was a deliberate choice to preserve tradition. Sanskrit as a dead language was created by European prejudice. It is just because of the deliberate decision of preserving Sanskrit, so we can still read and understand age old texts of our tradition.


Both poetry and prose were used in Natya. Use of verse was not to portray the social status or educational level of the character. Sublimity of thought was more suitably expressed through poetry.


Bharat Guptji then spoke about the significance of “Avyakth Shabd”, where meaning is communicated in “swar and taal”.He said language is part of what is produced in the throat.The sounds we produce which might not have dictionary meaning called “sthobhaksharas” cannot be categorised as entirely useless. They too communicate a thought or a feeling.


Bharat Guptji also expressed concern regarding the present day use of Nritta in dance forms of today. The sudden delivering of Nritta portions in between a story sequence has been the trend today. This way of presentation which he does not approve of was only introduced a few hundred years ago and according to him it disturbs the flow and creates “Rasa vigna”.


The whole  days discussions were thought provoking. Many questions, doubts and responses kept humming in the head. The day was enlightening.

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