It is to kathakali what Kalakshetra is to bharatanatyam. In November 1930, Vallathol Narayana Menon and Manakkulam Mukund Raja started an institute in Thrissur, Kerala, with the aim of preserving traditional art forms, especially kathakali. Over eight decades, the Kerala Kalamandalam Deemed University for Art & Culture, as it is officially known today, has played an important role in popularising kathakali across the world. The institute also imparts training in other art forms such as Ottan thullal, mohiniattam and kudiyattam. Emphasis is also placed on other aspects of the dance drama: chenda and maddalam (percussion instruments), pattu (vocals) and chutti and vesha (make-up and costumes). Even bharatanatyam, kuchipudi and mridangam are taught at its campus in Vallathol Nagar. “Kalamandalam has a unique atmosphere that somehow prompts students and acharyas (teachers) [to] move on with their involvement in and commitment to traditional arts,” said V Kaladharan, the assistant registrar at the institute. “Its hoary history is a treasure each inmate wants to revisit with a renewed energy.”
They train really, really hard. Following the gurukul system, the students live on the campus with the teachers and their daily regimen involves hours of training. The day begins as early as 4.30am with exercises of the eye, eyelids, eyebrows, cheeks and lips as mukhaja abhinaya (emoting and acting through face) is integral to the style. After breakfast, they return to class at 9am practising jumps and hastas (hand movements) and doing uzhicchil (body massage). Two and a half hours later, they focus on theory and study literary texts. Practical classes resume at 3pm and go on till 5pm. Mumbai’s leading kathakali dancer, C Gopalkrishnan, who studied at the institute from 1974 to ’82, said that he often thought of “running away” from the demanding environment. But he added that it builds stamina and instils discipline. “Few institutes are on par with Kalamandalam in terms of facilities and faculty,” said Gopalakrishnan.
You’ll be seeing two schools of kathakali. “Kalamandalam has both north and south styles of kathakali practised and performed,” said V Kaladharan. “There are some differences between both in terms of the positioning of the hand gestures, execution of certain dance segments and in the treatment of characters.”
One of the institute’s most renowned teachers, Pattikkantodi Ramunni Menon is credited for introducing the Kalluvazhi style to the institute, which was to become the main style. In Marg's Kathakali – The Art of the Nonworldly, Chitra Panikkar writes, “He made certain changes, reducing the number of kalasams (pure dance sequences), and accelerating the tempo in the enactment of love scenes, but supplemented the Kalluvazhi style with his scholarship in imaginative acting.”
They don’t tour Mumbai often. The last time Mumbai saw artists from Kerala Kalamandalam was in 2007 at the invitation of Keli, the cultural organisation founded by K Ramachandran in 1992. While Keli has welcomed alumni such as Gopi and Keezhpadam Kumaran Nair, Kalakshetram in Dombivali has hosted performances by pioneers such as Ramankutty Nair and Padmanabhan Nair, former principals of the institute. But the visits have dwindled in the last decade. The costs involved in bringing down the repertory, which apart from dancers and musicians also includes make-up artists and green room assistants is, heavy.
They will perform a classic. Nala Charitam, which will be presented at The Fine Arts Society’s Nrithyothsavam festival, is one of the most popular kathakali plays. Written by Unnayi Warrier, it is known for its blend of rasa abhinaya (emotional acting), nritta (dance) and lyrical poetry. The story follows the highs and lows in the lives of king Nala (pictured) and his wife Damayanthi, whose relationship faces its biggest challenge in the shape of the evil spirit Kali. Audiences here will see only episode two of the dance drama, which is usually performed over four days. “Nala Charitam II is very rarely staged outside Kerala because of its aesthetic niceties,” said Kaladharan. “We thought it is high time such plays are presented outside Kerala too.
By Suhani Singh on May 11 2012 4.30am
Photos by Courtesy Kerala Kalamandalam