Donn B. Murphy, Ph.D., Distinguished Theatre Professor Emeritus, Georgetown University.  Shown: Actor Kalamandalam Gopi of the Kalay Chethena Kathakali Company, photographed by  Kalamandalam Barbara Vijayakumar, and Kalamandalam Vijayakumar herself.

Indian theatre and dance are not separate forms as they are in Western culture.  Kathakali, pronounced “COT-uh-KAH-lee,” is only one form of Indian dance/drama.  Others include Abhinaya, Dharpana, Kathak, Kuchipudu and Natya Sastra.  These forms are, in their origin and practice, intertwined with gymnastics, military training arts, meditation and massage, all of which may be practiced to chanting and instrumental music.

The intricate plots involve romantic and heroic love, regal bravery, the intervention of spirits and so forth.  These stories in Kathakali are played out without spoken words by the actor-dancers, who do, however make some vocalization such as guttural roars when villains become animalistic.  Elaborate facial expressions are accompanied traditionally by a chanting singer, two drums, two cymbals a gong and other sound effects.

Performances in earlier times began at around 10 p.m. and continued to dawn, following one plot line.  Today it is customary to present three stories in one evening, at performance times more like those in the West.  Traditionally, audiences sit on the same level as the performers, who are within a 10 ft. by 10 ft. designated space.  Two oil-wick lamps, representing the sun and the moon, are on face-level stands at each side of the playing space to emphasize the facial gestures.  The only background is the surrounding darkness from which the supernatural figures emerge.

While the face of a ballerina in classical Western ballet is often expected not to convey emotions, Indian dancers use facial expressions as well as gestures called mudras, which have distinct meanings.  Mudras are learned in conjunction with specific tonal chants.  Particular facial expressions with specific emotional implications are carefully rehearsed, as in the Delsarte system in the West.  Kathakali gestures are organized on long sequences identified with titles such as “elephant,” and in this aspect they are reminiscent of details of lazzi routines of the Italian comedia del arte.  Similarly, after basic dance steps are learned, they are combined into complex sequences.  This rigorous training is described in a 1,600-page novel about India called “The Perfect Boy.”

The dancers to not move rapidly across the space, but, as in Asian dance generally, take small steps within a very limited playing area and often stay standing for long periods in one place.  There is, however, intricate toe-heel tapping footwork which includes stamping steps almost like barefoot tap-dancing.  The weight is often on the side of the foot rather than of the full foot, the latter being the usage in the Bharatanaya form of dance.

Long, slow motion, very concentrated hardly rhythmic sections are intermixed with sudden whirling and violent movement.  The acting-mime is sometimes elaborately melodramatic, sometimes intimately realistic.

Classically, Kathakali is a male performance form, and, as with the Japanese Kabuki in earlier times, female dancers were considered prostitutes.  Today, women dancers are more prevalent and the tradition of men playing women is fast disappearing.  However the vigor created by the male origins of the dance survives.

Ancient Indian kings did have dancers at court.  The upper classes, however thought the dance immoral, although men were allowed to watch.  Under colonial influence, Victorian prudery coalesced with the Brahman idea of purity to denigrate dance forms.

The art form is still much based in religion, and some prayers and rituals are performed behind a curtain which is held up at the beginning of the performance.  At the opening of the presentation a “curtain look” is often performed.  An actor fixes the audience with a stare which may last several minutes, the intent being to create suspense through partial viewing.

A sanctified atmosphere prevails in the dressing room, where protocols are in force, as they are in the Japanese Kabuki theatre.  Western theatre has virtually no rigorous backstage practices other than a few joking superstitions, and pragmatic rules aimed at keeping silence and order, and getting the actors onto the stage on cue.

Tradition deserves examination, and ancient myths are re-understood and reinterpreted by modern practitioners of the form.  The Krishna stories are easily accessible, but they are also  philosophically provocative and profound.  Tradition should not prevent respectful thought, intelligent reinvestigation and imaginative evolution.  Religious and philosophical disquisitions on good and evil reside in the traditional mythological stories treated in the various traditional Indian dance forms.

Kuchipudu, a form similar to Kathakali, almost disappeared in the midst of poverty, disease and famine.  With origins in the second century B.C., it wash reinvigorated in the 20th century.  In the 1300's, a brilliant dancer-scholar initiated a Kuchipudu curriculum with a group of young Brahman boys.  In the early 1900's, the all-male dance form was again renewed by Guru Vempati Chinnasatyam, added villains and his trademark skill, dancing on the edge of a brass plate, to his performances.  His son performed at George Washington University’s Lisner Auditorium in Washington, DC in 1997.

Thus the stories of the Mahabharata and other classics are open to renewed vigor and new life, while their origins are respected and their purposes more deeply understood.  These epic tales are transfused with a distinctly Indian sensibility, a unique sense of the implication of the passing of time, which permeates even modern Indian music, fashion and life.  As an example, the suffering and abused Queen Draupadi (DROW-puh-dee), a starring character in the Mahabharata, might have been seen primarily as a victim in more romantic times.  Today she is understood as a symbol of protest - something of a feminist.  When she is stripped of her clothing, she is not so much embarrassed as angry.  She takes her own action - revenge - in response to this assault.

Of interest: Kalay Chethena Kathakali International Touring Theatrical Company from South India