//Seeing red, for a reason

Seeing red, for a reason

WHEN kathakali dancer Kalamandalam Venkitraman speaks, he uses energetic facial expressions and sweeping hand gestures to get his point across. These are not affectations, but rather, the result of his association with the ancient Indian dance theatre, which relies on those “props” to bring Hindu epics to life. 

“In kathakali, we become characters from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. We shed our own personalities once we put on the costumes and get on stage,” said the 36-year-old, who hails from Kerala, India, the birthplace of kathakali. He visited Malaysia earlier in the year to share knowledge of his craft. 

Kathakali emerged in the 17th century when the open-minded Rajah of Kottarakkara in Kerala started to write plays based on the Ramayana in the local language, Malayalam, which enabled the common folk to understand and enjoy the epic. 

Initially known as Ramanattan, kathakali took the kudiattam, or ancient ritual plays, usually performed in cloistered Hindu temples and royal courts, out into the open spaces in villages. 

Facial expressions are codified to show key aesthetic emotions like wonder, fear and fury.

The key to kathakali lies in understanding every single character and situation in the Hindu epics, Venkitaraman said. 

“The artistes have to know, by heart, all the stories that form the base of the dance form because, often, they do not know what part they will play till a few hours before the performance. And very often, there is no time for rehearsal. Today, I may be Rama, tomorrow, Sita, and on another day, Ravana. There is no ‘important role’. Every role is valuable to the entire story.”  

Usually, an all-male ensemble plays both the male and female parts. The number of women who perform kathakali is growing, but the challenge for all performers remains unchanged – they have to tell the stories with their bodies. 

“Kathakali is pure dance drama. Singers narrate the epics while the artistes, who do not speak, have to mime and move, using stylised upper body movements, hand gestures and facial expressions.”  

All these are meticulously codified. The facial expressions depict nine principal aesthetic emotions – love, valour, pathos, wonder, derision, fear, disgust, fury and tranquillity. Finely-tuned hand gestures called mudras allow the dancers to interpret the epics and communicate with each other. 

While the intricate combination of facial and bodily movements bring the characters to life, it is their costumes and codified make-up that give them presence, Venkitaraman explained.  

“The colours of the face paint reveal more about the character. Pink, or minukku, is used for women, Brahmins, sages and children. Green denotes divine, heroic and kingly characters, but green with red symbolises wicked characters with some good qualities, such as Ravana. Red is for demonic characters, while black is for wicked ogres.” 

Face paints are derived from plants and certain coloured stones. The dramatic colours of the face paint are intensified by transforming the white part of the eye into a fiery red. 

“The stamen of the chundakka flower is rolled into a little seed, which is inserted under the lower inner eyelid. When the eyes start to smart, the reddish tinge makes it easier for the audience to follow their movements.” 

Kalamandalam Venkitraman showing a headdress ringed with semi-precious stones.

It may not be comfortable dancing with smarting red eyes, but there is a scientific explanation for this ancient practice, Venkitaraman said. 

“The kathakali dancer’s costume is tied firmly at 21 different parts of his body. This constricts the flow of blood, and creates a tension that has to be released. The reddened eyes serve as an outlet for releasing that tension.” 

Most dancers don a large skirt made of 50m of cloth. Far from being cumbersome, the rhythmic sway of the skirt evokes an aura of majesty. 

The kathakali costume is usually topped with an elaborate headdress. The front of the headdress is a spire enclosed by circles of semi-precious stones, to denote the mythical qualities of the characters portrayed. Characters are inspired by stories about the Buddha, who had rays emanating from his body.  

It takes a kathakali dancer three-and-a-half hours to don his costume and apply make-up. A full-scale kathakali performance starts at 9pm and can go on till 5.30am.  

“We usually perform specific romantic and heroic passages from the epics. Each passage is about three to four hours long,” said Venkitaraman.  

Such performances are still staged in villages across Kerala during the harvesting and planting seasons, which start in September and last till April. However, shorter programmes of kathakali are increasingly performed year round. 

Changing trends in Indian audience demographics are behind this. “More and more people have taken on urban lifestyles. Their attention span is shorter and they do not really have the stamina to sit through six- to eight-hour performances. People are interested in kathakali but they do not really understand it,” Venkitaraman said.  

Personally, his orthodox mooring has not stopped him from performing shorter programmes and conducting workshops. 

“Kathakali goes on whenever a dancer puts on the costumes and make-up and transforms into a mythical Hindu character. You need to continue to take the art to the people. In time, hopefully, they will understand and appreciate their heritage.”