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The System of Kathakali

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The System of Kathakali



“Every work both of nature and of art is a system”

                                                                                    --Joseph Butler


            Kathakali, the pearl of Kerala, is a beautifully rich art form.  Its ascetics are stunning, its music vital, and its stories are essential to the people and culture that cultivated its life.  Also, Kathakali is wonderfully complex.


            Being a work of art, Kathakali is a system.  As a system, it possesses multiple members or parts that make the whole of it.  Namely, these members are: history, text, audio (vocals and instruments), practice, acting, visuals (costume and make-up), environment, and the crew.


            To understand Kathakali, to understand the whole, one must first understand each individual member.  Therefore, following this introduction will be a comprehensive analysis describing each member of this system in the same sequence as listed above.


            But this will not be enough.  In understanding each member we understand nothing more than just that—we only understand each member and not the system itself.  Only when we understand each member of a system as well as how each member relates to every other member does one understand a system.  Being so, near the end of this paper, following all of the descriptions of each member, will be a description of the relationships between each member to each other member.  In the way, Kathakali will be understood.


I should note that relationships will not only be discussed near the end of this paper but will also be discusses throughout it.  As previously stated, Kathakali is wonderfully complex.  Being so, there are many aspects of certain members that cannot be described except in relation to another member.  These aspects are described in their respective members’ descriptions.


            Without further adieu, let us begin at a beginning that begun before Kathakali was given life…





            History is the first member I have chosen to discuss.  Aristotle would stat that this section describes Kathakali’s Efficient Cause.  This section, this member is important because in order to understand Kathakali, on must first understand how it came to be as well as its place in historical context.


            In his book katakali dance-drama: where gods and demons come out to play, Phillip Zarrilli does an excellent job of describing the history of Kathakali.  The rest of this particular section is a summary condensing 15 of his pages into the nine concise paragraphs that follow. 


            In the beginning, two great authors authored two cycles each of eight plays: Manaveda, ruler of Kozhikode, wrote Krishnattam, and after, Kottarakara Tampuran, prince of Elayidattu Swaroopam, wrote Ramanattam (Zarrilli, 18).


            The early actors wore either only one color for facial make-up, or, for specific characters, as mask.  Their waists were bare.  The rhythms and dances were intense, they sang their won lines, and the “head gear was made of palm sheath with designs painted on it” (Zarrilli, 18).


Later, prince Kottarakara Tampuran wrote four plays based not on the Ramayana but on the Mahabharata.  After this, a term was needed to cover this new work with the two previous works mentioned above; in this way, “Kathakali” was termed (Zarrilli, 18).


            As for the socio-economic structure, the interest of the Namboodiris was cultivated after the prince of Kottayam developed his plays (Zarrilli, 23).  The Namboodiris recruited Nayars from within their own service cast for Kathakali actors (Zarrilli, 23); also, they recruited musicians already in service to them (Zarrilli, 22).  The Nayars, being the warrior caste, were trained in a martial art named Kalaripyatt.  Because of their intense training, the Nayars had the energy and endurance, as well as the foundations for the postures and footwork, that made them the ideal candidates for actors (Zarrilli, 21).


            Throughout its evolution, numerous changes have been made to Kathakali, including: crowns replacing palm sheaths, make-up for creatures replacing masks, two singers to sing all text, as well as the addition of both the centa drum and the cymbals (Zarrilli, 24).


            During the mid-nineteenth century, all of the identifiable parts of Kathakali today became present.  At this time, much attention was given to tweaking the techniques and aesthetic elements of the performance (Zarrilli, 27).  Techniques like, for example, “the various svasas [breathing of internal winds]… are controlled, one after another, appropriately to make [Balis’] death-throes realistic” (Zarrilli, 29).


            In the latter half of the nineteenth century, in relation to British involvement, interest in Kathakali declined.  Financing Kathakali became problematic because of the new reforms on marital inheritance.  Individuals like the poet Mahakavia Vallathol Narayana were concerned with this declining interest and tried to preserve it (Zarrilli, 29-30).


            Narayana, with the help of a royal household, founded the Kerala Kalamandalam.  With time, funds went dry, and the government took over the Kalamandalam.  After the Prime Minister Pandit Jowaharlol Nehru donated a generous sum of money, the program flourished.  Changing its name to “The Academy of the Arts,” it now also offered study in Ottantullal, Bharatanayam, Mohiniattam, and classical music.  Ever-evolving, it grew to grant high-school certificates and currently has higher sights set on becoming a university (Zarrilli, 29-32).


            Also of noteworthy comment are the Margi.  All of its members were “over fifty-five, retired, and living on pensions” (Zarrilli, 33), so not only could they devote all their time to Kathakali, they were also free from the social pressures of the government run Kalamandalam.





Two members of the Kathakalis system are discussed in this section: text and music.  The descriptions these two members flow well together, especially with the relationships between the t4ext and the vocalists.  The text is the heart of Kathakali, and music its skeleton or structure.


            Early Kathakali plays were based on the Ramanattam, which was based on the Ramayana.  Of the eight plays contained in this work, three are performed today: Sita Swayamvavum, Balivadham, and Toranayuddham (Menon, 48).


            There appears to be contradictory information when the descriptions of Kathakali by Menon and Zarrilli are compared.  It seems that Zarrilli thinks that Krishnattam is contained in Kathakali (Zarrilli, 18).  Menon states that Krishnattam “resembles Kathakali… [in non vocal actions,] in make-up and in costume but the acting technique is not so developed and the dances are simple” (Menon, 26).  Perhaps this difference suggests that there is disagreement regarding what makes “Kathakali” Kathakali.  Also, my interpretation could be incorrect.  Zarrilli may have meant only that the Ramana was “modeled” after the Krishnattam, and that they are two unique forms; however, it is more likely that he meant the term Kathakali came into being to refer to the Krishnattam, Ramanattam, and four plays based on the Mahabharata collectively.  At any rate, there is only one company today that performs this questionable work (Menon, 26).


            The complete text for each performance is recited by two singers standing upstage and to the side.  They sing in Talams, which are rhythms patterned in units called matras (Menon, 56).  The singers often sing each line multiple times so that the actor can enact different parts of each line or the same parts in different ways.  The lead singer sings the text and sets the beat for the entire performance with his mini-gong.  The second singer sings in the absence of the first and assists him with maintaining the beast with his hand symbols.


            In addition to the above, there are three more drums one can expect to see at a Kathakali performance: the Maddalam, the centa, and the itaykka (Zarrilli, 59).  The cenda drum is a drum that is hung around the neck and played with both hands (Pandeya, 141).  The maddalam is similar to the mrdangam, and the idakki is a double-headed drum (Pandeya, 140-141).[1]  The relationships between the text, musicians and other members will be discussed more fully in the sections that follow as well as near the end of this paper.





In both cross-country (distance running) and in theatre we had a saying, “you will do what you practice!”  Developing habitual mental patterns and muscle memory, we certainly do perform as we practice.  Acting is the visual focus of Kathakali—it is where the action is.  Practice is the foundation of acting—it is the means by which techniques and patterns are developed and maintained.


            I had the opportunity to participate in the first few rehearsals of a future Kathakali actor.  The rehearsals were, in a word, intense.  As previously stated in the history, the first Kathakali actors were of the Nayar cast—the warrior cast—for they, because of their mastery of Kalaripyatt, had the energy, endurance, and foundations for the footwork and postures necessary for Kathakali.


            Previously, I had studied a Korean martial art called Tae Kwon Do for an hour a day, four days a week, for three months.  Additionally, both in high school and in college I have acted in numerous theatrical productions.  Relating the above, the Kathakali practices were not much like any of my theatre rehearsals—even musicals—yet were much like my Tae Kwon Do training.  Undoubtedly, a great deal of the Kalaripyatt forms and techniques remain deeply embedded even today.


            Even so, the Kathakali practices did have a few similarities to a rehearsal for a musical production.  The majority of each class focused on the footwork and postures—mostly footwork.  One of the footwork drills, for instance, was like the jazz square I have performed in musicals, save the footwork was performed on an imaginary horizontal line.  During the Kathakali practices, we would perform this jazz square variation to four different beats: slow, medium, fast, and “as fast as we could move our legs.”  Many of the footwork techniques I learned were done in a similar fashion, though more complicated and with more variance.


The mudras and facial expressions practiced during the last fifth of each rehearsal were unlike my marital arts training yet much like my theatrical training.  The two dozed mudras I was expected to memorize were specific hand gestures learned sequentially.  The nine or ten facial expressions were specific positions and techniques to present various emotional states like lust of fear.  The mudras were similar to the precision movement work that I have previously practiced and performed, and the facial expressions are similar to some work I have done in acting classes.[2]


            For the sake of brevity and to avoid tedious and unnecessary repetition, I will state simply that acting in Kathakali is the actualization of the practices stated in the paragraphs above.  The footwork, the mudras, and the facial expressions all work together in harmony with the other elements of the performance to tell a story.  This concept will be explained comprehensively within the Relations section near the end of this paper.


            It is interesting to note the relationships between bodywork and acting.  My college director, Dr. Mark Lococo, greatly emphasized the importance of physical conditioning—especially yoga.  In fact, in his acting class our ability to perform Sun Salutations determined one-third of our final exam!  He believes that bodywork in general and yoga in specific are indispensable techniques to tweak theatrical talents.  Kathakali, however, first began with the bodywork (Kalaripyatt) which was later built upon with theatrical techniques.  Undoubtedly, acting and bodywork (like Lococo’s yoga and Zarrilli’s Kalaripyatt) complement each other well (Asian, 16).[3]  What is interesting to observe here are the differences in acting styles—in relation to presentation and body work—that occur depending on which is the foundation and which built upon the other.





            As people are within, so they appear without—this is the mentality of the culture that gave life to Kathakali.  Also having relationships with caste and karma, our physical appearance is believed to be a reflection of our inner being.  This point is important because this metaphysical perspective is embedded into Kathakali.  By simply looking at the make-up and costumes of an actor, and understanding these two members and nothing more, one can quickly identify the behavior and inner-nature of the vast majority of Kathakali characters.


            There are, however, a few costume characteristics that the majority of actors share.  Men generally war jackets, jewelry, long black wigs, and material around the mid-body (Complex, 171)[4].  In comparison, the women’s’ costumes appear more realistic than the men’s do.  The women wear jewelry, ornaments, and add material to widen their hips (Complex, 171-172).  With exceptions to these generalizations, there are special costumes for characters like holy men (Complex, 172).


            There are six specific and unique categories or make-up types in Kathakali, with an additional general category.  The following is a description of each category:



This category is for the divine or heroic.  These characters are generally calm (Gods, 53-54)[5].  The all green base on the face is framed with white.  They have black curvy eyes, red lips, and the mark of Vishnu.  The upper body is red and white while the lower is white with orange and black patterns (Complex, 173)



This category is just like the one above expect the make-up color is not green but orange-red (Gods, 54).



These characters are evil, but since they are of high birth, they are not completely.  Their costumes and make-up are like those in the Green category, except for an upside down moustache, red make-up above the eyes, and two white bulbs on the head (Gods, 54).



A white beard indicates a high and divine being.  Basically, this category is just for Hanuman (Complex, 174) though I am uncertain if any other character belongs to this category.


The characters wearing a red beard are evil beings.  These costumes are like those of the Green cat4egory, save red base and black lips.  The two monkey chiefs, Bali and Sugriva, are notable exceptions to this category (complex, 175).


The black beards are evil schemers.  Their make-up and costume are like the red beards, except the lower face and skirt are black, though the skirt is also blue at the bottom (complex, 175).



These characters are unattractive demonesses (Complex, 175).  Their costumes are like that of the Black Beards’ (Gods, 55).



The characters in this category are highly spiritual.  This category includes characters like Brahmin, sages, and disguised demonesses (Complex, 175).  They wear a yellowing-orange base with everyday traditional clothing (Gods, 55).



This category is like a net catching all characters not contained in the six make-up types above (Gods, 55).  This category includes characters in the style of a bird or man-lion (Complex, 175).





“[T]he form being only theoretically separable from the object in question”—Aristotle


            The environment is the host of Kathakali.  The physical structures define the borders and contain the entire performance.  This member is similar to Aristotle’s’ Formal Cause; without an environment (without a shape), Kathakali could not be performed.  The lighting, the backstage rooms, and the stage itself are all essential elements to each performance.  What follows is a description of Kathakali’s environment both past and present, as well as a description of the crew.





            The early Kathakali performances were typically performed either inside a house or on the premises of a temple.  The rectangular stage had an area of approximately twenty-five feet.  There was a pole in each corner and to define the stage boundaries a cloth was draped over the poles (Gods, 49)


            The sole lighting was an oil lam down center stage.  “[T]he focus or attention was usually on the actors’ faces and hands since little light fell on their feet and legs” (Gods, 50).


            Early entrances were made on the upstage sides, and sometimes a tirassilaa “rectangular piece of heavy material in bright colours” (Menon, 58)—was used to hide and reveal actors (Gods, 50).





            I have had the opportunity to observe and study a Kathakali performance both from the audiences’ perspective and backstage.  During this period I made detailed observations regarding the environment in which Kathakali is performed.  The following are my findings:


            I am unsure of the exact shape of the stage—even behind the stage its borders were difficult to determine—but my hypothesis is that is either the shape of a square or a regular trapezoid.  There was a dark curtain for an upstage “wall,” and black panels defined the stage left and stage right borders.


            I find the tree black panels of particular interest.  There are three panels on stage left and three on stage right; all six were identical to each other.  Each extended from the floor to the ceiling and together they could dorm a wall.  They were semi-circular in shape, although they appeared rectangular at certain angles and could pivot around their centers.


            The reason why I find the panels so fascinating is the potential for creative utilization.  For instance, they could be pivoted such that one side creates a wall.  Two could be closed and the third opened to create a stage entrance or exit.  Alternatively, in the same position, they could be used for, say, an imaginary closet, or to hide actors, crewmen, or even props.  The panels could be decorated as trees to create a forest scene, or as pillars to create the appearance of a temple… their potential adaptations are limitless!  It is curious, I think, that they used these for nothing more than either a wall or a visual blockade to hide actors and crewmen.  Truly, I have never observed anything like these on a stage!


            The lighting and sound technologies were direct and simplistic.  The lighting consisted of two lights hanging above up-center stage, two on-stage spotlights, one standing down left and the other down right, and an oil lamp which was ever-burning at down center.  Oh, lest I forget, the audience was somewhat lit by two signs that read PLEASE DO NOT SMOKEThe sound was equally simplistic.  Basically, it consisted of two speaker boxes facing the audience, one at down stage left and the other at down stage right with a few electrical gadgets in the back to control them.


            Behind the stage was consistently simplistic.  There were three sets of lights: one behind stage left, another behind center stage, and the third behind stage right.  Each set contained two florescent light bulbs with a “typical” light bulb between them.  The electrical gadgets that controlled the sound were located behind stage right.  Several wooden ladders and oodles of tarps and cloth material could be located behind center stage; additionally, here on the back wall was painted a large picture of Brahma lying down (it was Brahma according to a girl I asked while backstage).  Further, there were two rooms, one behind stage left and the other behind stage right.


            The room behind stage left is the Prop Room.  The physical structure of this room is geometrically similar to the Green Room, which is described in detail below.  In the Prop Room, a shelf was covered with cloth material and trinkets, ornaments, and golden jewelry.  On a rope perpendicular to the rope just mentioned hung the actors “real” clothes.  A big blue wooden lockable chest on the floor contained clothing, costumes, and ornaments; also, there was a geometrically similar yet smaller box containing the same.  Actors and musicians who completed their costumes and make-up talked, laughed, and relaxed in this room.  The environment here felt positive and warm with an abundance of laughter and smiles—this contrasts with the sensations I felt in the Green Room


            The room behind stage right is the Green Room.  It is, well… green.  Actually, I find this simple fact interesting—it is the first Green Room I have seen that was actually painted green!  This room was in the shape of a square cube.  The windows were in the shape of doors and could open and close as such.  One wall had a shelf across its entire width and had two sets of windows with each set containing three “doors.”  Another wall had one window of two “doors.”  A third wall had a door that led to a bathroom, and the fourth wall possessed an exit or entrance to the area behind the stage near the audio controls.


            On the shelved mentioned the actors rested their personal bags and umbrellas.  Directly above and equal to the span of the shelves were six large wooden-framed mirrors which could be tilted vertically.  There were three light bulbs on this wall.


            This room contained two additional light sources.  The first was a florescent tube directly above the entrance or exit of the room.  The second was a light bulb suspended in the center of the room by electrical wires secured o two opposing walls.


            On the floor below the suspended light bulb and surrounding, it sat the actors.  The sat on tar spread in a rectangle enclosing the suspended bulb along with their make-up supplies.  The actors’ grinded powdered and liquid with stones to produce colored make-up pastes.  A wooden stick was used to transplant make-up from the stones onto a green plant leaf that they held like a pallet.  Systematically swapping one hand with either the pallet or a hand-held mirror, the other hand used either a cloth to apply make-up in broad strokes (like the lip region) or a small cylindrical wooden stick was used for detailed applications (like the artful facial designs).


            Contrary to what I have read and been told, each actor put on most of the make-up himself.  During the exceptions, an actor would lye down while a non-acting artist applied artistic designs on his face.  Additionally, the curvy paper visible on some of the actors faces were all cut, curved, colored, and pasted by the non-acting make-up artists.


            There are a couple of final observations I would like to stage regarding the Green Room specifically.  The first is the non-comprehensive use of available space.  In this room, the wall shelf held only a few personal bags and umbrellas—with oodles of apace remaining—while a bench below the shelf as well as three blue folding chairs and two sinks, were not sued at all.  Nor were the six large wooden-framed mirrors used.  Comparing to my previous experiences, in the U.S. Green Rooms, for better or for worse every available shelf, large mirror, and piece of furniture was always used for some purpose by someone.  The final observation I would like to make here regards the atmospheric sensations in this room.  In the U.S., during the pre-performance the Green Room is full of excitement, energy, anxiety, and laughter.  Here, not so.  Here, the atmosphere was quiet, calm, and focused.  It is a noteworthy pre-performance contrast.


            Contrary to the west, the crew, though essential, is not a significant members in relation to the other members within the Kathakali system.  In Kathakali there are not one-hundred light bulbs to be raised, lowered, flashed, etc. in complex patterns controlled with the aid of a computer, nor are there CD tracks to play, sounds to mix, or an audio network to enable communications between crewman.  They plug in the speakers, switch on the lights and light the on-stage lamp.  They hold a tirassila and hand actors props.  They apply artful facial patterns to some of the actors; however, I observed several actors apply marvelously complex patterns onto their own faces.  Also, before the performance the crewman use a cloth rope to scrunch the tarp material mentioned behind center stage around the actors waists; this gives the circular waist appearance.  However, beyond these mentioned tasks, the crewmen are for the most part inactive members of the production.





“Let us instance on a watch—Suppose the several parts of it taken to pieces, and placed apart from each other; let a man have ever so exact a notion of these several parts, unless he considers the respects and relations which they have to each other, he will not have anything like the idea of a watch.  Suppose these several parts brought together and any how united: neither will he yet, be the union ever so close, have an idea which will bear any resemblance to that of a watch.  But let him view those several parts put together, or consider them as to be put together in the manner of a watch; let him form a notion of the relations which those several parts have to each other—all conducive in their respective ways to this purpose, showing the hour of the day; and then he has the idea of a watch.”


“The several parts even considered as a whole do not complete the idea, unless in the notion of a whole you include the relations and respects which those parts have to each other.”

                                                                                                                        --Joseph Butler


Each and every member within the system that is Kathakali has now bee described.  But this is not enough.  As butler clearly points out, understanding each member of Kathakali does not result in the understanding of Kathakali as a whole.  So, as he would certainly command, the relationships between each member to every other member must now be stated.


            Kathakali is a richly complex system containing a variety of elements all inter-relating for the sake of the whole—just like a chess game.  Indeed, I cannot think of a more detailed and comprehensive method to explain the complex relationships of Kathakali than through a analogy to chess.  As Kalaripyatt already contained to necessary foundations to create Kathakali, so chess already contains the necessary foundations to explain Kathakali.  So, without further adieu, let us now “form a notion of the relations which those several parts have to each other.”


            The stage is the chessboard, the parameters within which all of the action takes place.  The people, events, and details that have contributed to or influenced the systems prior state complete the history.  Those who setup and maintain the board, pieces, pawns, and environmental variables are the crew.  The elaborate decorations and artistic details on each piece equal costuming and make-up.  Practice is the means by which the performers develop and refine their skills.  Those who watch the chess game are the audience.  In both chess and Kathakali, in the beginning, a traditional opening is (nearly) always performed.


            The text is the King, the most vital member whose location directly influences the Queen.  The Queen is the lead singer.  The is the most powerful piece who always in relation to the location of the King(s), directs the location and behavior of all the other pieces and pawns—except the text, by whom she is directed.


            The second singer makes for an interesting analysis when relating to chess.  The second singer only adds to the power of and assists with the direction of the lead singer and is not himself the power—this distinction must be kept.  Interestingly, some texts define the Queen as a piece possessing the combined powers of both the Rook and Bishop.  Traditionally, the Rook is worth five points and the Bishop three; the Rook is the more valuable member or part.  With these distinctions being made, let us now refine the previous definition of the Queen to thus: the Queen is the combination of the lead singer and the second singer; the lead singer is like the “Rook part” of the Queen and the second singer the “Bishop part,” so although both members are fundamental to complete the Queen, the lead singer is the more powerful, valuable, and dominant member.


            The musicians are the pawns.  They create, maintain, and determine the skeleton or structure of the performance.  Though directed by the Queen, the musicians (help) set the pace.  The pawn skeleton determines the available movements for all pieces, especially the Knight, Bishop, and Rook.


            The Knight, Bishop, and Rook are the actors.  It is their specific specialized and precise movements that are most commonly gestured and presented—they are where the action is.  Directed by the Queen in relation to the King, strategically and choreographically they move within the stage in a manner respective to the skeleton or structure created by the musicians.


            En passant,[6] castling,[7] forking,[8] pinning,[9] controlling the center,[10] controlling open files,[11] controlling dark or light squares, developing the pawn skeleton, achieving pawn promotions, and the like are all theatrical techniques, devices, and strategies.  These are the curtain teases, the occasional yelps from the actors, the strategic placement of performers and props, as well as the many other techniques and strategies used to deliver a more effective performance.


            Let us never forget the “big picture.”  Fundamentally, everything is done in relation to the King/text.  Essentially, every member has a unique and specific function, some more important that others, yet even the most worthless member is necessary for the whole to function.  It is the complex network of inter-relations between members that threads the system together.



Having described each of Kathakali’s members and the relationships thereof, Butler is well satisfied and Kathakali itself has successfully been described.  The following two sections contain valuable information and perspectives that supplement the discussion of the Kathakali system and are important in holding a comprehensive understanding thereof.





            Were it the case that I had continued my Kathakali practices, the time would have come for me to select a character to enact.  Were the performance directed under my previous college director Dr. mark Lococo, he would have insisted that I compiled a GOTE sheet.  He argued that in order for an actor to enact a character well, the actor must understand the enacted character in depth.  This includes an understanding of the characters age, marital status, the time or period, etc. as well as understanding what the character wants, what prevents the character from getting it, how the character can overcome whatever prevents him from getting it, and why the character expects to succeed


            The following is a GOTE sheet, which I undoubtedly would have created were I to have continued my Kathakali practices.  For this task, I have chosen the character Bhima of the play “Pancali’s puspa.”  As I have observed this story performed in an art form similar to Kathakali, heard the story described by professor Nayar, read the story in Paneyas’ book The art of Kathakali, and understand this story in the context of the Mahabharata through David Bollands’ A Guide to Kathakali, this is certainly the Kathakali play I understand the best.  The following is a useful tool for the potential Kathakali actor.  It also serves to introduce the reader in a unique way to a popular Kathakali play.



NAME:  Bhima

SEX: Male

AGE: Adult

MARITAL STATUS: Married to Panchali (who is also called Draupadi); also, she is a wife to all five Pandava brothers

FAMILY: Bhima is a strong Pandava Brother; he is a son of Kunti and the Wind God.

TIME OR PERIOD: Dwappara Yuga




What do I want?  Why do I want it?  Who has what I want?

            I want the flower that my wife, Panchali, smelled in the wind.  I want it because Panchali begged me to fetch if for her and because she is so beautiful.



Who or what are my obstacles?  How and why do they keep me from what I want?

            My obstacle is this pathetic old monkey.  He keeps me from what I want by lying in my way.  Unknown to me, he is my stepbrother Hanuman who blocks my way both to teach me a lesson and to humble me.



How can I get what I want?  Who can I persuade, seduce, avoid, threaten, or otherwise manipulate to get what I want?

            I can get what I want by force.  I can threaten to beat or kill the pathetic old monkey that hath made me mad.  Also, I can pull him out of my way.



Why do I expect to get what I want?

            I am a powerful being.  I am persistent and so will find the flower my wife begged of me.  Although an old and pathetic monkey blocks my way, I can easily overpower this weakling with my fantastic strength.





            In their book titled Kathakali: The Art of the Non-Worldly, Nair and Paniker note some worthwhile comments in relation to Kathakali.  The following is an analysis of three quotes from this work; combined, they will produce the final two perspectives needed to supplement the Kathakali system.


“Only a tattwabhinivesi (philosophically-oriented person) will be able to full appreciate a Kathakali performance”


“The Kathakali eklochana is thus meaningful only when its reach extends to the learned connoisseur”


            I agree with the two quotes above.  I enjoy theatre.  I love theatre.  I love rehearsals, I love acting on the stage, and I love observing in the audience.  My first experience with Kathakali, however, was inconsistent with my love.


            During the first few minutes attending my first Kathakali performance, I was in awe.  I was fascinated by the fine detail of the vibrant make-up, the elaborate decorations on the costumes and the consistent precision movements by the actors together with the contrasting simplicity of the instruments, the stage itself and its lighting.  After several minutes, however, my mental state changed and grew weary.  I found the performance unbearably slow with overly repetitious actors acting a story I knew not sung in a language I knew not with expressions and gestures I knew no better.


            Later, I participated in a few Kathakali practices, listened to a variety of people (like professor Nayar) speak on the subject, studied the pre-performance while backstage, and read much on the matter.  As I learned details like the history behind the stories themselves, the symbolisms associated with details like green make-up base or white beards, and the relationships amongst all the members of the Kathakali system, the more my appreciation and enjoyment grew.  Oh, the difference such education makes!  Without an open mind educated in the details of Kathakali the system appears shallow and hypnotic, but with such a mind, Kathakali is realized as it truly is—a wonderfully complex, passionate, and vital system.


            “Among the various performing arts in India, and perhaps, even the world, Kathakali is unique so far as it is one of the farthest from earthly reality and humanism.  There is no attempt of representing the mundane world in any manner-whether by imitation or otherwise.  Only epic, non-human beings are chosen for the re-creation of a story for presentation on the stage.  And that presentation, whether in form, colour, behaviour, or sound is deliberately made contra-human, to exist in another world: that of the imagination of the connoisseur… Kathakali takes the connoisseur away from the transient worldly experience of pleasure to one of transcendental entrancement.”


            The aspects mentioned above must not be ignored by the western audience.  The western productions I have observed or performed have typically taken a realistic approach to theatre.  Although there are noteworthy exceptions, generally the goal of the directors and actors is to present a story as if the audience were observing real events happening here on earth.  Even the musicals try to present the movements, postures, and vocal inflections realistically.  In the west the objective is to capture the audience in, as the popular saying goes, “the suspension of disbelief.”


            In Kathakali, this is not the case.  Green people, for instance, are hardly realistic—yet realism is not the aim.  The aim is the symbolism of outwardly displaying a characters inner nature.  Obviously, it is unnatural for a man to constantly state each statement in a series of statements three of four times, yet this is a necessary Kathakali method to allow the actors to gesture each line comprehensively.  In these and other ways, while western theatre is generally natural and realistic, Kathakali is symbolic and surreal.



            It is often the nature of a whole to be greater than the sum of its parts.  It is true of Kathakali.  The Kathakali system can itself be seen as a single member in a broader, more comprehensive system.  This larger system contains members like Kathakali, Kalaripyatt, Bharatanayam, Hinduism, politics, economics, class, cast, as well as others with each member interacting with every other member.  Surely, a comprehensive and detailed description of such a system is beyond the scope of this and perhaps any other single work.  But is must not be ignored that Kathakali itself is an active member in the complex system that is Kerala.

Works Citied




Aristotle.  Physics, bk. 2, ch1, 193A36-193B6.



Bolland, David.  A Guide to Kathakali.  New Delhi: Sterling, 1996.



Butler, Joseph.  Sermons.  Robert Carter.  New York.  1873.



Menon, K.P.S.  A Dictionary of Kathakali.  Orient Longman Ltd. Chennai.  1997



Nair, D. Appukuttan, and Paniker, K. Ayyappa.  Kathakali: The Art of the Non-Worldly

Bombay: Marg.  1993.



Nayar, V.R. Prabodhachandran.  Hir various lectures, discussions, and summaries on Kathakali.

            June through July, 2001.



Pandeya, AvinashC.  The Art of Kathakali.  Munshiram Manoharlal Publishers Pvt. Ltd. New

Delhi.  1999.



Zarrilli, Phillip B.  Asian Martial Arts in Actor Training.  Center for South Asia, University of

Wisconsin.  Madison: Wisconsin.  1993.



Zarrilli, Phillip B.  kathakali dance-drama: where gods and demons come out to play

Routledge.  New York: New York.  2000.




Shakkti Malik, Abhinav Publications.  Hauz Khas: New Delhi.  1984.

[1] Pandeya and Zarrilli differ in their spelling of two instruments mentioned here: centa vs. cenda, and itaykka vs. idakki.  These variant spellings are reflected in this paragraph.

[2] Shannon, the other student with whom I practiced, states that practices continued to progress in the structure descried herein.

[3] This notation refers to Phillip Zarrilli’s’ book titled Asian Martial Arts in Actor Training

[4] This notation refers to Phillip Zarrilli’s’ book titled THE KATHAKALI COMPLEX: ACTOR, PERFORMANCE & STRUCTURE

[5] This notation refers to Phillip Zarrilli’s’ book titled kathakali dance-drama: where gods and demons come out to play

[6] in passing: a detailed and wordy method for capturing an opponents pawn by passing and moving behind it.

[7] A technique that protects the King while developing a Rook

[8] the act of a piece or pawn simultaneously attacking two or more of the opponents pieces or pawns

[9] the act of attacking a piece that if moved, then the attacker is attacking a more valuable piece

[10] The strategy of controlling the four most powerful squares: D4, D5, E4, and E5

[11] Generally, using a Rook to control a column free of pawns

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