Kathakali is visually the most appealing and most easily recognizable classical dance form of India. Elaborate makeup and voluminous costumes make the dancers stand apart from any other form. Last week I had the opportunity to watch a Kathakali performance. And more importantly got to see the dancers getting ready for the performance. You can read about the historical and technical details of the dance on Wikipedia. Here I share my experience of shooting the in-progress makeup and the performance.
Kathakali – Classical Dance Drama
It is a tedious task to get dressed as Kathakali dancer. It takes hours and hours of time and patience. It begins with the face makeup, where the base color is applied on the face and designs painted over it. The base color is chosen according to the character being played e.g. Green for heroes and Red and Black for evil characters, pale yellow for female characters. The eyes are colored red by putting a flower extract and make the face look even more dramatic. The face extensions made of simple white chart paper are applied using rice powder paste. You need a makeup artist to help you put this.
After this, the flair for the lower garment is added to the waist, before it is covered with the red-bordered white skirt. This is followed by wearing up the upper garment. And the layers and layers of jewelry, around the neck, wrists, waist and arms. Then comes the time to wear bands around the forehead. That add to the color and formation of already applied makeup.
A very heavy headgear or Kirit is fixed on the head on top of a plain scarf. Headgears are elaborately embellished both in front and at the back. Big extension earrings are tied and look like huge ears. Long hair extensions are fixed. Metallic nail extensions are applied that makes the fingers appear longer and more discreetly visible. Depending on the character 4-5 Uttariyas or upper garment are hung around the neck, with knotted ends, one of these has mirrors affixed to them. Sometimes during the performances artists would quickly use them to check their makeup or expression. And sometimes use it as a prop for the dance.
Kathakali Performance & Deepam
Kathakali performance happens in front of a huge Deepam called Keli. Traditionally the performance happened from late evening to dawn. And the lamp served as the only source of light. Now it is a part of the tradition. The live music is played using various drums and singers sing on the stage as dancers take center stage. Characters are introduced from behind a curtain before they start performing. Covered in the layers and layers of garments, makeup, and accessories. The parts used by dancers to express are eyes with extensive eyebrow movements. Hands with various mudras and feet with ghoongrus tied at the knee level.
The theme of Kathakali performance was Mahabharata. There were seven scenes that depicted the crux of the epic. During the performance, two characters came off the stage and went into the crowd. The whole auditorium became a stage. There were few scenes where they repeated this. And this enthused the audience a lot as they could feel the characters close to them. Click pictures with them and feel a part of the play. This also created space for some impromptu acts by the actors with the audience. Now is this not how all our traditional performances used to be before the advent of ticketed events.
I thought the 3+ hours of performance was too long. When I came back and read about it I realized that this is the shortest performance of Kathakali. Yes with so much time invested in preparing for each performance you better perform for some time.
Thank you, Suresh Ji, for inviting me for this wonderful performance that was as much an education for me.
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