Seeking a Renaissance in San Francisco
“Traditions Engaged is a major, historic festival spanning two of the U.S.’ most prominent cities in premiere venues. Featuring leading Indian classical dancers and musicians and more than sixty artists over six days. Dozens of exciting and insightful daytime performances. 18 major performers in the evening.” — CDDC
In preparation for the Traditions Engaged (TE) festival coming up on October 1-3, I will be introducing the various Indian Classical Dance forms every week, with a brief profile on the art form, a TE artist spotlight, and a schedule of upcoming festival performances. This week’s topic will be Kathakali.
Kathakali is one of the ancient classical dance forms of India. It originates from the South Indian state, Kerala. Kathakali finds its origins in Ramananattam and Krishnanattam of the 16th and 17th centuries. These dance forms were theatrical productions that depicted stories from the Ramayana and Mahabharata. The word Kathakali literally means, story-play, and uses a combination of literature, music, painting, acting, and dance in its theatrical productions. The dance form was really established in the 17th and 18th century Travancore palaces.
The art form combines Nritta (pure dance), Nritya (use of hand gestures), and Natya (acting). There are 24 basic hand gestures or mudras in Kathakali. With the combination of hand gestures, body movements, and expressions, performers communicate with over 600-700 intricate gestures. Performers are also taught to communicate with their eyes and various facial muscles, skills that can take years to perfect.
There are 101 Kathakali plays currently in existence, though only about a third are regularly performed today. Traditionally, Kathakali plays were composed to start at nighttime and end in the early mornings. In the modern presentation, plays are often staged within 2-4 hours. Much of physical stamina that performers develop is based on disciplined training of Kalarippayattu, a type of martial art form from Kerala.
In the modern day, Kathakali is sustained by two major styles, Kalluvazhi (northern) and Thekkan (southern). The styles continued to be taught at schools like the Sadanam Kathakali Academy and Guru Govindan Kutty’s Kalamandalam.