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As the drums resound and cymbals clash, the brilliantly colored curtain begins to quiver in the lamplight. An eerie howl resounds from behind the curtain as a towering crown of shimmering gold and jewels emerges above it.
At last the owner of the glimmering headdress shows his face, covered with a brilliant melange of green, black, red, and white designs. His eyebrows quiver, his eyes roll, and an evil smile curls his painted lips. Long silver fingernails trace elaborate patterns, while the bulky red costume bounces over intricate steps. The singers begin their mournful tune, describing the fantastic deeds of demons and deities. The audience is already entranced. Kathakali dance drama has begun to weave its spell.
About 600 local spectators were privileged last September to see the Kathakali dance drama, a rare and complex art form developed from ancient Sanskrit theater traditions in the south Indian state of Kerala. A troupe of fifteen dancers, singers, and artists, hailing from the world-renowned arts institution, the Kerala Kalamandalam, graced Ann Arbor for several days, offering lecture- demonstrations and a full length performance of the operatic drama, "Dusshaasana Vadham," at Rackham auditorium.
Kathakali dance drama is one of India's most remarkable performing arts. An operatic spectacle involving pantomime, abstract dance, singing, instrumental accompaniment, and elaborate, stylized costumes and makeup, it is truly a multimedia presentation. Kathakali, which literally means "story play," was developed in the 17th century in Kerala as a courtly dance drama enacting mythic stories of the Hindu gods and goddesses. Based on the ancient Sanskrit theater tradition outlined in the second- century treatise, Natya Sastra, Kathakali has incorporated elements of older theatrical styles such as Kutiyattam and Krishnanattam, as well as influences from the rich tradition of possession performances found throughout the region. These latter ritual traditions emphasize blood sacrifice, orchestral drumming and spirit possession by fierce deities who are worshipped with dancing and story-telling. Although Kathakali has always been conceived of as a form of theater, not a possession ritual, the original performances took place over many nights in temples as a sacred offering. Today, Kathakali has become increasingly a commercial entertainment, condensed to a few hours and presented in theaters. Still, the original vitality and artistry of the ancient tradition is manifest.
The training of a Kathakali artist takes up to twelve years of full-time effort, and involves complete mastery of all the body's muscles, as well as a fundamental reshaping of the body achieved through vigorous massage. Every emotional mood and subtlety of expression can be conveyed through facial and hand gestures, which employ a language of signs encompassing over a thousand words and parts of speech. The actors do not speak, but mime their thoughts and speeches through gesture, while singers emote and enact the actual lines of the text to the accompaniment of cymbals and drums. The drums provide intricate sound effects as well as the rhythmic base of the vigorous dancing. All parts in Kathakali are traditionally played by men, including female roles.
The costumes and makeup of Kathakali are among the most elaborate in world theater, requiring upwards of three hours to put on. Color plays an important iconic role in identifying the inner qualities of the various characters. Green facial make-up indicates noble, virtuous heroes and divine beings. Good, gentle characters like women, rishis and pious brahmins have a simple pale, flesh-colored or beige make-up. The "knife" characters, antiheroes who combine royalty with evil, have green and red facial make- up, with white blobs on the nose and forehead. "Beards" (red or black) represent characters dominated by base passions like fury, stupidity and treachery. Demonesses wear black make-up, black costumes, and are equipped with fangs and large hanging breasts.
On Friday evening, September 13, a large crowd filled Rackham auditorium for a performance of Kathakali dance drama, sponsored by the Center for South and Southeast Asian Studies (CSSEAS). Some had seen Kathakali before, but many were new to this art form, which is demanding of the audience as well as the performers. I gave a brief introduction to Kathakali, explaining some of its unique artistic features. Ajitha Gopi then summarized the story line in detail before the play began. "Dusshaasana Vadham," ("The slaying of Dusshaasana") is an enactment of selected episodes from the great Hindu epic, Mahabharata. The play proceeds in five scenes, opening with a royal dice game between the Pandavas and their cousins the Kauravas. Duryodhana, the eldest of the Kauravas, is determined to eliminate the Pandavas so that he can take over the kingdom.
Through cheating at the dice game, he achieves this end, humiliating the Pandavas and their common wife, Draupadi. Duryodhana's brother, the evil Dusshaasana, drags Draupadi into the room by her hair and tries to disrobe her. As Draupadi prays fervently to Lord Krishna, however, her sari lengthens miraculously. In the end, the Pandavas are banished to the forest for twelve years, but not before Draupadi utters a curse upon the evil Kauravas: not only will they be killed by her husbands, but Bhima, strongest of the Pandavas, will rip Dusshaasana open and bathe Draupadi's hair in the villain's blood before she ever agrees to bind her hair up again.
The play proceeds with the adventures of the Pandavas in their forest exile, negotiations for their return, and the battle with the Kauravas. Finally, Bhima fulfills Draupadi's vow of revenge, ripping Dusshaasana apart in a frenzy of violence. Smeared with Dusshaasana's blood, which he drinks as he disembowels the villain, Bhima rushes to Draupadi and sprinkles the blood on her hair so that she can dress it again with satisfaction. In a rage, Bhima rushes around killing anyone who appears before him. Suddenly he sees Lord Krishna before him with a beatific smile. Bhima's animal frenzy dies down as he returns to his normal human state. Bhima falls at the feet of Krishna, who blesses him.
Kerala Kalamandalam is the premier institution devoted to the performing arts of this south Indian state. It was established by the esteemed nationalist poet Vallathol Narayana Menon and his contemporaries in 1930 in order to initiate a cultural renaissance and revive classical art forms such as Kathakali and Mohiniyattam. Since then, Kalamandalam has achieved an international reputation as a premier center for training and magnificent theatrical productions, attracting artists from all over the globe.
In addition to their performance, dancers in the Kalamandalam troupe gave a short lecture-demonstration in Jessica Fogel's advanced Modern Drama class on eye, face and body training in Kathakali. The troupe's musicians lectured in Judith Becker's introductory Asian music class, and demonstrated the music and their instruments to students. Finally, the troupe gave a full lecture demonstration at the School of Music recital hall, sponsored by SPIC-MACAY, a local student-run Indian arts organization.
The current world tour of Kalamandalam's finest teachers and performers was sponsored by the Indian Council of Cultural Relations in New Delhi, India, CSSEAS and private citizens. The Ann Arbor visit was orchestrated by local members of the Amrita Institute of Medical Sciences of Research Center (AIMS) Hospital Project, a charitable venture of the Mata Amritanandamayi Center. The AIMS Project is raising funds to build a hospital in Cochin, Kerala to provide free medical services to the poor and needy. All profits from the Ann Arbor performance were donated to this project.
Sarah Caldwell is a visiting faculty member in Anthropology and the Program on Studies in Religion, and a postdoctoral scholar in the Michigan Society of Fellows.