Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “ No other state in India can offer such an abundance of theatrical genres as Kerala. This rather small state is located on the western coast of southern India. Its history is known from approximately 200 B.C. onwards. Although it has been a crossroads of international maritime trade routes for over some 600 years, it has, on the other hand, been isolated from other parts of the subcontinent by mountain chains. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“In Kerala it is still possible to find forms of archaic ritual theatre, probably originating from the Neolithic Stone Age (teyyam). Kerala is also the inheritor of the one and only surviving performing tradition of Sanskrit Dramas (kutiyattam). Later, this tradition gave birth to new innovations (krishnanattam, ramanattam, kathakali). Two solo forms, preformed by women, still survive in Kerala. One of them (nangiarkuttu) concentrates mainly on the mimetic abhinaya technique, described in the Natyashastra, while the other (mohinyattam) belongs to the “temple dances” performed in the South Indian temples by devadasis, female temple servants. In Kerala many of the theatrical arts are still carried out by specific hereditary castes, which have been specialising in music, acting, and dancing for some two thousand years. /=/

“Two forms of puppetry are still practised in Kerala: an archaic form of shadow theatre specialising in the Ramayana (tolpavakoothu), and a relatively recent tradition of glow puppet theatre inspired by dance-drama (bhavakathakali). Kerala’s famous form of martial arts (kalaripayattu) is still a thriving tradition and its energetic technique has also been adapted by local dance-theatre. /=/

“Two centuries ago an exceptional actor blended the ancient art of abhinaya or mimetic acting with a more direct approach and created a rare form of popular solo theatre (tullal). The theatrical tradition of the whole of India has been compared to an age-old tree with many branches. One can, indeed, also use this metaphor in the case of Kerala’s traditions.” /=/

Mudiyettu, ritual theatre and dance drama of Kerala

In 2010, Mudiyettu is a ritual dance drama from Kerala was placed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. According to UNESCO: “Mudiyettu is a ritual dance drama from Kerala based on the mythological tale of a battle between the goddess Kali and the demon Darika. It is a community ritual in which the entire village participates. After the summer crops have been harvested, the villagers reach the temple in the early morning on an appointed day. Mudiyettu performers purify themselves through fasting and prayer, then draw a huge image of goddess Kali, called as kalam, on the temple floor with coloured powders, wherein the spirit of the goddess is invoked. This prepares the ground for the lively enactment to follow, in which the divine sage Narada importunes Shiva to contain the demon Darika, who is immune to defeat by mortals. Shiva instead commands that Darika will die at the hand of the goddess Kali.” [Source: UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage] Mudiyettu is performed annually in ‘Bhagavati Kavus’, the temples of the goddess, in different villages along the rivers Chalakkudy Puzha, Periyar and Moovattupuzha. Mutual cooperation and collective participation of each caste in the ritual instils and strengthens common identity and mutual bonding in the community. Responsibility for its transmission lies with the elders and senior performers, who engage the younger generation as apprentices during the course of the performance. Mudiyettu serves as an important cultural site for transmission of traditional values, ethics, moral codes and aesthetic norms of the community to the next generation, thereby ensuring its continuity and relevance in present times.

The music and dances were placed on the Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity because: 1) Mudiyettu is both ritual theatre and dance drama, with an important symbolic function for the identity of its practitioners, fostering social cohesion among all castes and reinforcing the sense of continuity within its community; 2) The inscription of Mudiyettu on the Representative List could raise awareness about the significance of intangible cultural heritage by offering an example of social harmony among different castes and communities.

Teyyam, an Archaic Form of Ritual Theatre

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “In Kerala there live side by side very archaic forms of ritual theatre and forms of theatre closely related to classical theatre that clearly belongs to the Natyashastra tradition. One of the earliest forms of theatre found in Kerala is teyyam, a group of annual rituals or “festivals” lasting from one to seven days. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“The Teyyam tradition belongs to the village and tribal context of the northern parts of Kerala. It reflects the construction of the local religious belief-system. It is a cult inseparable from local Hinduism, particularly the worship of the Mother Goddess, while, at the same time, it preserves beliefs and magical practices clearly preceding the arrival of Hinduism. /=/

“Some scholars believe that the origins of teyyam lie in the Neolithic Stone Age, as is indicated by the many archaic features that teyyam still preserves. Early textual sources mentioned teyyam approximately 1500 years ago. It seems that it has gone through several stages of development, and it is still doing it even today. /=/

“Although it is connected to Hindu tradition, teyyam has preserved elements of animistic spirit worship as well as ancient ancestor and hero worship. It often includes an element of trance, which also indicates its archaic roots. Teyyam is closely related to local village deities. Earlier, it is believed, there were nearly 400 different deities related to teyyam. Now they are reduced to 40.” /=/

Teyyam Dance Ritual

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “Hereditary families of teyyam dancers carry on the tradition. They preserve palm-leaf manuscripts on which tottams, or teyyam songs, are written. Teyyam is performed by men, although there is one exception, teyyam koothu, which is always carried out by women. Teyyam rituals are accompanied by local instruments, such as pipes, drums and cymbals. The rituals start with preliminary ceremonies, which are followed by the actual dance. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“Teyyam dances are robust and powerful. They seem to preserve elements of early martial arts and archaic weapon worship. They may represent an early stage of development of the movement technique now seen, for example, in kathakali. On the other hand, the trend has recently been to mould the dance section according to the more classical styles. /=/

“The costume and make-up, which vary greatly in each teyyam tradition, seem extremely old and authentic. The faces of the dancers are painted with bright colours to create the impression of a kind of animal spirit or a completely alien creature not belonging to this word. The stylised costumes combine natural materials, such as coconut leaves with coloured cloth. In a similar way as the make-up and costume, the imposing headdresses also vary according to the tradition and the deity to whom the ritual is addressed. Teyyam, indeed, seems to offer a rare glimpse of the earliest forms of theatrical arts of the whole of mankind.” /=/

Kutiyattam, The Only Surviving Form of Sanskrit Drama

Kudiyattam is a form of dance-drama based on mythology only performed in temples, with performances by temple servants lasting up to 20 days and featuring more than 600 codified hand gestures. Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “ Kutiyattam (also Kootiattam, Kootiyattam, Koodiyattam) is an old form of theatre, which until recently has been performed solely in the temple theatres, kootampalas, of Kerala, a state with an exceptionally strong Sanskrit tradition. Kutiyattam (lit. “acting and dancing together”) is traditionally performed by men of the Chakiar caste, and the music is played by men of the Nambiar caste, while the women of the Nambiar families, Nangiars, play the female roles. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

Kutiyattam is a remarkable tradition in several ways. It is the sole example of an unbroken tradition of Sanskrit drama, which has already been discussed. It meticulously follows the instructions of the Natayashastra and the later, local acting manuals. In its relatively isolated performing milieu it has preserved its literary heritage, music, acting technique and costuming and make-up practices. It was not well known in other parts of India or abroad until the latter half of the 20th century.

In 2008, Kutiyattam was placed on the UNESCO Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity. According to UNESCO: “ Kutiyattam, Sanskrit theatre, which is practised in the province of Kerala, is one of India’s oldest living theatrical traditions. Originating more than 2,000 years ago, Kutiyattam represents a synthesis of Sanskrit classicism and reflects the local traditions of Kerala. In its stylized and codified theatrical language, neta abhinaya (eye expression) and hasta abhinaya (the language of gestures) are prominent. They focus on the thoughts and feelings of the main character. Actors undergo ten to fifteen years of rigorous training to become fully-fledged performers with sophisticated breathing control and subtle muscle shifts of the face and body. The actor’s art lies in elaborating a situation or episode in all its detail. Therefore, a single act may take days to perform and a complete performance may last up to 40 days. [Source: UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage]

Miettinen wrote: “Kerala has an exceptionally strong Sanskrit tradition. Thus it is no wonder that the classical Sanskrit dramas found their way to Kerala. In the beginning the repertoire of kutiyattam consisted of Sanskrit dramas written by writers mainly from northern India, such as Bhasa, Kalidasa, and Harsha. In a similar way to Sanskrit dramas, there is also a clear hierarchy of languages in kutiyattam plays. Priests and men of the ruling class speak Sanskrit, while women, children, and ordinary folk use the local vernacular, Malayalam. As in Sanskrit dramas, so also in kutiyattam, the clown character can break this social hierarchy by moving freely on every level of society and translate the Sanskrit verses of the heroes into local Malayalam. /=/

History of Kutiyattam

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “ Literary evidence suggests that kutiyattam may have a history of some 1800 years. From the 14th century onwards the references became more numerous, giving information on several of its aspects. For centuries, kutiyattam was very popular and greatly appreciated by the rulers of Kerala. It was only in the latter part of the 20th century that kutiyattam emerged from the kootampalas or temple theatres, which non-Hindus are not allowed to enter. It was added to the curriculum of the state theatre school Kalamandalam, and, later, private kutiyattam associations started to do research into it and also promote it internationally. One of these institutions is Natana Kairali, led by Sri G. Venu, better known as Venuji. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

The first Malayali writer from Kerala, who wrote his own Sanskrit dramas, was Kulasekhara Varma (11th century). He is said to have also written a Kutiyattam manual, the Aattaprakaram. He is sometimes regarded as the “founder” of the art of kutiyattam. Numerous local writers after him wrote plays for kutiyattam. They include large-scale heroic plays as well as shorter farces. Many of them are elaborations of episodes from the great epics, the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, as was also the practice in Sanskrit dramas.

According to UNESCO: Kutiyattam is traditionally performed in theatres called Kuttampalams, which are located in Hindu temples. Access to performances was originally restricted owing to their sacred nature, but the plays have progressively opened up to larger audiences. Yet the actor’s role retains a sacred dimension, as attested by purification rituals and the placing of an oil lamp on stage during the performance symbolizing a divine presence. The male actors hand down to their trainees detailed performance manuals, which, until recent times, remained the exclusive and secret property of selected families. [Source: UNESCO Intangible Cultural Heritage]

With the collapse of patronage along with the feudal order in the nineteenth century, the families who held the secrets to the acting techniques experienced serious difficulties. After a revival in the early twentieth century, Kutiyattam is once again facing a lack of funding, leading to a severe crisis in the profession. In the face of this situation, the different bodies responsible for handing down the tradition have come together to join efforts in order to ensure the continuity of this Sanskrit theatre. [Ibid]

Kutiyattam Performance

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “ Most of the kootampalas or the temple theatres, in which kutiyattam is performed, follow the instructions of the Natyashastra. Their ground plan is mostly rectangular and they are rather intimate in size, thus enabling the audience to enjoy the actors’ hand gestures and intricate facial expressions, which, without a doubt, form the highlight of the whole art form. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“In front of the earthen stage there is always a big oil lamp. It is the focal point of all actions and it illuminates the actors’ faces and gestures. Behind the stage are two doors, which lead into the dressing room. Important characters are introduced from behind a hand-held curtain carried by two stagehands. The characters then dramatically appear to make their mimetic self-introductions according to their specific temperaments. The curtain functions as a demarcation line between this world and the mythical world of fiction. /=/

“The dominant instrument is a huge copper drum, mizhavu, which is placed in its own wooden enclosure at the rear of the stage. Other instruments include cymbals, a small drum played with a stick, and a conch shell. Every now and then the actors utter their own lines in a most slow and stylised manner. Much of the brilliance of the acting lies in the body language, or the above discussed abhinaya style of acting. The acting is a very slow process, as almost every word is given a lengthy commentary by means of gestures and mime. Thus the performance of a single kutiyattam play usually takes several days. Some Sanskrit dramas may have taken up to 70 days to be enacted with the kutiyattam technique. /=/

“The actors often execute the long mimetic monologues while sitting on a wooden stool in front of the oil lamp. There also exists a solo form of kutiyattam called koothu, which is narrative in character. The female koothu, nangiarkuttu, will be discussed in the next chapter. In the actual kutiyattam, in which several actors participate, the actor executing a long mimetic solo monologue is often left alone on the stage. When the monologue is finished, the other actors return to their places so that the dramatic action may again continue. /=/

The actor’s mimetic skills are trained to such a high level that he is able, if the play demands, to simultaneously express different feelings with the right and left side of his face. He can also “mono act” a mimetic dialogue all by himself, for example, by indicating the change of role from God Shiva to his consort Parvati by changing the position of his shawl. Because of the slow style of acting, which concentrates on elaborating the characters’ reactions, the enacting of a kutiyattam play in its entirety takes several days. That is why performances may start with kinds of flashback scenes in which the important events of the previous part are summarised. /=/

Kutiyattam Costumes and Make-up

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “ Both in costuming and make-up kutiyattam is clearly an indigenous form of art. The actors’ wide, skirt-like lower garments are believed to have developed from archaic dance costumes made of leaves and other natural materials. A speciality of the cotton-made kutiyattam garment is that its back forms a kind of huge, intricate rosette constructed of tight draperies. The upper body and arms are covered with a long-sleeved jacket. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“Heavy ornaments and headgear, mostly made of gilded wood, add to the kutiyattam’s exaggerated aesthetics, which bear clear, stylistic similarities to the 15th–17th century murals such as can be seen in the famous Mattancherry Palace in Kochi, in Central Kerala. The make-up is usually non-naturalistic and brightly coloured. Some make-up types are characterised by a white frame-like ridge, made of thick rice paste (chutti). Although highly stylised, the make-up varies according to each specific role. /=/

Later, this overall aesthetics was further developed in krishnanattan and particularly in kathakali, in which the make-up types were classified according to the specific character categories. The costuming and the ornaments took a further leap towards baroque abundance and reflected a fairytale-like mythical reality.” /=/

Nangiarkuttu, Female Branch of Kutiyattam

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “Nangiarkuttu (also nangiar koothu) is a one-woman type of ritual theatre, originally performed in the temple theatres in Kerala. Just like kutiyattam and kathakali, it concentrates on mimetic abhinaya acting. Traditionally the stories cover the life cycle of the god Krishna. It is performed by Nangiars, women of the Nambiar families, while the accompanying music is played by Nambiars.[Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“Nangiarkuttu clearly has a very long history, although it is not known in detail. Even the A.D. 2nd century Drama Manual, the Natyashastra, mentions similar kinds of female solo performance types. Nangiarkuttu was performed solely in the temple theatres and during certain cremation ceremonies, although the last of such a kind of ceremony is known to have been held a century ago. Nangiarkuttu was slowly dying out until the early 1980s, when important gurus and actresses started its vigorous revival. /=/

“Nangiarkuttu is now also performed outside the temple theatres. Besides the Krishna’s story, which has traditionally been the content of nangiarkuttu, now other stories are also enacted. Nangiarkuttu has recently been added to the syllabus of the State Theatre School, Kerala Kalamandalam. The future of nangiarkuttu seems bright, both nationally and internationally. /=/ “Traditionally the text enacted by nagiarkuttu has been the Sree Krishna Charitam (Story of Krishna), which consists of 216 sloka verses. It describes Krishna’s life from his birth to the end of the story cycle. The Rama Charitam (Story of Rama) was also added to the repertory later, and recently a story cycle based on the life of Draupadi from the Mahabharata has been dramatised like nangiarkuttu. The sloka verses combine several languages. The narration is usually in Sanskrit while the characters’ direct spoken lines may be in Prakrit or in Malayalam.” /=/

Nangiarkuttu Performance

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “Nangiarkuttu was originally a form of temple offering and its full execution took 12 consecutive days. Complicated rituals precede the actual play, including purification ceremonies, worship of the deity of the temple, and a ritual dance performed behind a hand-held curtain. After the performer has done her make-up and put on her attire and the headgear she becomes a personification of the mother goddess Bhagavati. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“In many respects nangiarkuttu is related to kutiyattam, in which the Nangiar actresses take the female roles. The traditions are clearly related in their acting technique, make-up, and costuming. Nangiarkuttu, however, is a solo form, in which a single actress both acts as the mimetic narrator and assumes all the roles of the story. One could indeed talk about the art of “mono acting”. On the floor of the stage, on the actress’s right hand side, sits a female singer who sings the slokas or verses, which the actor then gesticulates. The whole process of enacting the story focuses on the combination of hand gestures and the facial, particularly eye, expression. /=/

“As is often the case in kutiyattam, and also in nangiarkuttu, the actor frequently sits on a wooden stool facing the big oil lamp, the focal point of actions and originally the only source of light for the performance. Behind the small stage sits the drummer, who plays mizhavu, the large drum made of thin plates of copper. It is the chief musical instrument of nangiarkuttu in addition to the cymbals played by the singer. /=/

“The costume consists of a wide skirt-like lower garment and a red blouse. The high, red headgear is surrounded by a gold-coloured naga or snake motif. With its ochre base the make-up bears similarities to the make-up of the female characters in kutiyattam and the minukku characters of kathakali. /=/

Kathakali, Kerala’s Dance-Drama

Kathakali is a form of dance-drama that mean "story acting." Indigenous to Kerala and one of the oldest continually-performed forms in theater in the world, it resemble the pantomime acting of Japanese noh, in that actors wear elaborate masks, and features men doing martial arts like movements to the rhythm of drums. Kathakali is usually performed outdoors, often in temples. temples often host shows that are free to the public. Sometimes several thousand people sit through the nine hour performances that last all night.

Kathakali in its present form originated in the 176h century and is based on ancient temples carvings. Dancers act out episodes of the “Ramayana” and “Mahabharata” to the music of singers and percussionists. Hand gestures and facial expressions are important, with particularly emphasis on the dancer-actor’s eyes and finger motions. The movements and footwork are smooth and slow and take great effort to execute correctly. Performers do not jump or run around much. Kathakali is performed to the rhythms of the chenda, a loud thunderous drum, and a the maddala, a instrument which produces softer and more relaxed sounds.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “ Kathakali (Story Play) is probably the best-known form of Indian dance-drama all over the world. It evolved in the 16th century out of the kutiyattam tradition, and krishnanattam took its energetic footwork from the kalaripayattu martial arts tradition, which has been discussed above. Gradually kathakali’s system of make-up and its costuming reached their present spectacular forms. Kathakali was originally an art form practised by the Nair warrior caste. It is still generally performed by an all-male cast (although one female troupe also exists). Following the path opened up by kutiyattam, the actors do not speak or sing but concentrate on dance sequences and particularly on the intricate abhinaya acting. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“Kathakali evolved in the late 16th century from older forms, such as kutiyattam, krishnattam, and kalaripayattu martial arts. Its direct forerunner was the form called ramanattam, which concentrated on the life of Prince Rama of the Ramayana epic. Ramanattam is now extinct but its heritage is carried on by kathakali. Kathakali was gradually developed by master actors as well as art connoisseurs, including rulers and learned Brahmans. Its golden age was the latter half of the 18th century, when Maharaja Kartika Tirunal (1758–1798) wrote several plays for kathakali and a permanent palace troupe was formed.” /=/

Kathakali Plays and Performances

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “ Some five hundred kathakali plays exist, of which some fifty have recently been actively performed. The playwrights came from the uppermost levels of society, and among them were several rulers and learned Brahmans. Originally, scenes from the Mahabharata epic were dramatised as kathakali plays. Later, the Ramayana and the Puranas also provided material for the plots. The language used in kathakali is “high” Malayalam, which combines Sanskrit with vernacular Malayalam. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“Kathakali was not limited to performances only in the kootampalam temple theatre houses, as were kutiyattam and krishnanattam. At the moment kathakali is performed in several kinds of spaces. The most common are open spaces in a village or a town, often in front of a temple. Just as in kutiyattam, the acting focuses on a large oil lamp, which is placed in the foreground of the stage. /=/

“The stage can be just earthen ground, but is now more often an elevated temporary structure. The oil lamp still serves as the focal point of the performance although electric lights are now commonly used. No sets and very few stage props are used. A wooden stool can serve as a seat, a throne, a mountain etc. Just like kutiyattam, important characters are introduced from behind a hand-held curtain. These highly dramatic introductions are carried out according to the type of the character. A lyric character may simply be slowly revealed while an aggressive character may violently pull the curtain down himself. /=/

“The orchestra accompanying kathakali includes four musicians. The main instruments are two different types of drums and a gong, played by the leading singer. His assistant plays the cymbals. For special effects a third kind of drum and a conch shell are used. The musicians stand on the left side of the stage. An inseparable element of the auditory whole is the dynamic rattle of the small bells attached to the pads tied around the actors’ calves. Long before the actual play starts the evening’s performance is announced with a powerful drumming, after which two dancers perform the blessings behind a raised curtain. Then follows a pure nrtta dance, after which lines of the Gita Govinda are sung. Then finally the actual play starts with the introduction of the leading characters.” /=/

Kathakali Training and Technique

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “ The kathakali actors come mainly from the ancient Nair warrior caste. The study and training to become a professional actor takes from 8 to 10 years. The training starts with vigorous physical exercises. During the years the body is made elastic by massage with medicated oils in order that the student will attain the right elastic basic stance, which includes a strongly bent back and a wide-open leg position, both derived from the kalaripayattu martial arts technique. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“The basic training includes rehearsing of the eye movement in the early hours of the morning. The training of the facial expression also includes separate exercises for brows, lips, mouth, neck, and cheeks. In the daytime the students exercise body movements, gesture language and various combinations of steps and their co-ordination with the music. The actual focus of the whole acting is on the execution of the mudras, the symbolic hand gestures, in perfect co-ordination with the facial expression, especially with the exaggerated eye movements. /=/

“The more physical aspects of the body language, such as vigorous stamping on the outer side of the sole, adapted from kalaripayattu, and the high jumps that this special foot technique enables the actors to perform, are partly hidden by the heavy skirt-like lower garments of the actors. They are rather sparsely used during an entire play, yet their dynamism always amazes the spectator.” /=/

Kathakali Character Types

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “Unlike the situation in kutiyattam, where all characters tend to have their own individual make-up, in kathakali the characters are divided into clear role categories. They are basically four in number. All of them have their own basic make-up styles developed over the centuries from the make-up systems of kutiyattam, krishnanattam, and ramanattam. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“Paccha or the “green” types include heroes who are always good and brave. Their faces are painted green and the face is surrounded with a white frame-like ridge, made of thick rice paste (chutti). This white frame gives the face an idealised shape and underlines the expression of the eyes as well as the lips, which are painted so as to present a permanently pleasant smile. Katti or the “knife” types are usually the villains of the play. They have various make-up styles that combine the positive green colour with red, which represents aggressiveness and greed. Various chutti boards can be added to the make-up, as well as artificial bulbous extensions to the tip of the nose and even the forehead. The colour combination reveals the inner qualities of the characters. /=/

“Tadi or the bearded role types wear a long, artificial beard made of wool. The tadi characters are divided into three groups. 1) The white-bearded characters are generally good, superhuman beings, such as Hanuman. 2) The red-bearded characters are evil and bloodthirsty characters. 3) The black-bearded characters are hunters or primitive forest dwellers. Minukku (“shining”) characters include women and Brahmans, rishis, sages etc. Their ochre make-up is less stylised than that of the other character types. (There are also some special characters with their own unique make-up types and some few characters even wear masks.)

Kathakali Make-up and Costumes

Kathakali costumes are quite heavy and voluminous. A single costume is comprised of about 55 meters of material. Several ankle-length skirts are worn with a decorated red wool or cotton jackets and a long white scarf with white and red cotton lotus blooms. The outer layers are all highly decorated. The dancers wear large headdresses shaped like a temple with a halo, studded with gold and jewels. The soles of the feet and the palms are died pinks. Female roles are played by boys with false breasts.

Kathakali dancers paint their faces green, yellow and red and wear huge headdresses and jewelry on almost every inch of their body. Different colors suggest the temperament of the gods portrayed, with green representing godliness and back evil. The eyes are often reddened by placing irritating flower or eggplant seeds under the eyelids and a layer of mica flakes is placed on the skin. The make-up of the face is over a centimeter inch thick and takes hours to apply, during which time that actor can not move out of concern of making the make-up crack. Actors receive foot massages before the make up is a applied and meditate or sleep during much of the process.

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “The costuming and ornaments are more elaborated than those of kutiyattam. The skirt-like lower garment, used by all role categories except the minukku type, is voluminous and constructed of several layers of heavy cotton. The upper body and arms are covered with a loose, red jacket.

Heavy ornaments, mostly of gilded wood with coloured stones, are worn on the neck, ears, shoulders, wrists and forearms. Long, white and red scarves are worn around the neck. Most of the characters wear a heavy, gilded wooden crown with a round halo (kireetam), decorated with green and red stones. Silver nails are worn on the fingers on the left hand. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“To prepare the make-up of the main characters may take as long as three hours. The finishing touch is done by dyeing the eyeballs red with a seed of a certain plant. During the make-up process, the actor slowly becomes transformed into the character of the play. When the make-up is ready, the actor puts the crown on his head. After that, he no longer speaks, because he is no longer his ordinary self but an embodiment of the character he is playing. It is said that an actor whose personality is discernible after the make-up has been applied is not a good kathakali actor. The stylised, silent acting technique, the sudden powerful jumps and kicks, the overwhelming costuming with its glittering details, and the completely non-naturalistic make-up make the actors, indeed, look like visitors from another world. /=/

Tullal, A Semi-Classical One-Man Show

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “Tullal (“jumping”) refers to a form of one-man dance-theatre as well as to a literary tradition created for it. The tradition is said to have been invented by an exceptional actor-poet in the early 18th century. Tullal has three subcategories. All of them are characterised by a certain kind of poetry and dynamic performance style. In its straightforwardness Tullal represents folk theatre, which, however, employs elements of classical acting technique. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“It is generally thought that tullal was the invention of one man, Kuchan Nambiar, who was active in the mid-18th century. Legends surround this exceptional individual. Originally he was neither a professional dancer nor a poet. It is said that his genius lay in his inclination to become possessed. It seems, however, that he wrote dozens of tullal texts and was patronised by two rulers. /=/

“Tullal refers both to theatrical genre as well as to the texts, written in Malayalam with a particular metric mode. Kuchan Nambiar used themes borrowed from the Mahabharata, the Ramayana, and other stories that already existed, but he gave the themes a surprisingly contemporary angle. Thus tullal, indeed, is a typical form of popular theatre, intended to be directly understood by all kinds of audiences. Later, several authors created tullal texts, but of the approximately 100 texts some ten are now actively performed, all of them attributed to Kuchan Nambiar. /=/

Tullal Performance

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “Like most of the theatrical forms of Kerala, tullal is also generally performed in front of a large oil lamp. The stage is an empty space, and no hand-held curtains or any props are used. A performance usually lasts some two hours. The performances may take place in the daytime or in the evening. In both cases it is performed in front of a lightened oil lamp. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“Although tullal is predominately a verbal form of art, it employs, however, the gesture language derived from the local manual Hasta Lakshanadeepika. The gestures and the abhinaya mimetic acting, as a whole, are executed in a more or less sketchy manner. Thus the tullal style acting is a combination of abhinaya acting, dancing, and singing. It is a demanding technique, since the performer must sing and dance simultaneously. Besides that, he must be able to memorise long poems and be able to improvise on them. /=/

“As in most of the theatrical styles of Kerala, the actual performance in tullal is also preceded by preliminary rituals and ceremonies. They include intricate nrtta or non-descriptive dances, one of them danced with the performer’s back turned to the audience. Although tullal can be regarded as a form of popular theatre, its music is far from being simple. Rhythmically it is very intricate, while its singing style employs Karnatak ragas, although in simplified forms. /=/

“There are three types of tullal with their own costume and make-up styles. Ottan tullal is characterised by facial make-up similar to the paccha make-up of kathakali, with a green base and white borders made of rice paste (chutti). The headgear is a kind of a crown in the form of a many-headed snake. The dancer in parayan tullal also wears headgear with a snake motif, but the make-up is simpler than in ottan tullal. The eyes are made expressive with black outlines while the dancer’s body is covered with sandalwood paste. In seetankan tullal the costume bears similarities to the archaic teyyam costume. The crown-like headgear is constructed from palm leaves while the ornaments resemble live flowers. /=/

Payakathakali, Kathakali as a Puppet Play

Pava Kathakali is a form of puppetry modeled after kathakali, the dance-drama-martial-arts of Kerala. It is traditionally performed in front of small, intimate audiences. Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “Pavakathakali is a mini kathakali adapted for glow puppets. It evolved in the 18th century when kathakali became popular in the Palghat region, which already had its own glow puppet tradition. The performers belong to the Telugu-speaking population, although the language of the performances is local Malayalam. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“Nowadays the puppets are about half a metre high. Their faces, headgear, hands and feet are carved from wood and painted according to kathakali practice. A mini version of the kathakali costume, made of wool and cotton, form the body of the puppet, inside which the puppeteer puts his hand. The performance is accompanied by musicians, just as in real kathakali. All the performers sit on a small, elevated platform facing a mini-sized oil lamp. All in all, a pavakathakali performance requires at least six performers, including the musicians. /=/

“In the mid-20th century pavakathakali was a declining art form, but recently there have been attempts to revive it. It has also been performed in international puppet theatre festivals outside India. Now the trend is to make the puppets, in their tiniest details, resemble the actual kathakali actors.” /=/

Tolpavakoothu, The Ramayana of Shadows

Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen of the Theatre Academy of Helsinki wrote: “Tolpavakoothu (tol, leather; pava, puppet; koothu, play) is a shadow theatre tradition on a grand scale performed for Goddess Devi in the temples of Central Kerala. The performance may take three weeks to be fully executed. The puppets, cut from softened deerskin, are some 20–30 centimetres high, and they are operated behind a wide screen by several puppeteers. The language of the performance is mainly Tamil. [Source: Dr. Jukka O. Miettinen, Asian Traditional Theater and Dance website, Theatre Academy Helsinki /=/]

“The text used in tolpavakoothu is based on the famous Tamil version of the Ramayana, the Kambaramayana. It is believed that the Kambaramayana was chosen as the text of the tolpavakoothu tradition some 800 years ago. The text is in Tamil, although some lines in Sanskrit have been added. The actual performance also allows improvisation. The ancient palm leaf manuscripts of the script are treasured by tolpavakoothu families. At the moment there are only some 30 tolpavakoothu artists left in Kerala. Tolpavakoothu forms an integral part of the annual festivals dedicated to Goddess Devi. It is performed in the temple precincts in permanent stage structures (koothu madam). The performance is intended to propitiate the Goddess and the performance is regarded as a form of worship. /=/

“Long, complicated rituals precede the actual play. The sacred flame is carried from the temple sanctum in order to light an oil lamp on the stage. The screen cloth is hung on the stage and 21 oil lamps are lit from the sacred flame. Drumming announces that the performance is about to begin. It is followed by prayers and the sanctifying of the stage, after which a shadow figure of the elephant-headed God Ganesha is placed on the screen. Finally the actual play starts. In older times the entire story of the Ramayana, from Rama’s birth to his coronation, was shown during 41 nights. Now selected scenes form a series of performances, lasting some 20 days.” /=/

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Ministry of Tourism, Government of India, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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