When I was but a wee rug rat, I would sit transfixed for hours in front of our ECIL television every time Doordarshan Malayalam aired Kathakali performances, while my elder sister would run to the next room to escape the otherworldly figures prancing around to the loud clangs of the elathalam and the strident sounds of the chenda. At least, that’s the story my mother tells us every time a discussion on Kathakali comes up in the family. Sadly, my fascination with this 500-year-old dance-drama was short-lived. I, along with much of the rest of world, moved on to other forms of entertainment. Kathakali was relegated to something I’d see occasionally as a token representation of Kerala in tourism advertisements or in film songs where Kathakali dancers were used as props to add colour.

Now, a couple of decades later, to assuage my feelings of rootlessness, I feel a growing need to understand how early Malayali folk lived. Integral to this is knowing more about the various forms in which creativity expressed itself in a community. And which better art form to delve into than the grand spectacle that is Kathakali? So I set myself up to learn more about Kathakali in the hope that one day, when I eventually get to watch a live performance, I would be able to understand and appreciate this elaborate and complex form of storytelling.

Kathakali owes its present form to the several ritual art forms as well as theatre forms that existed in Kerala. Many indigenous ritual art forms such as Kolkali, Chakyarkoothu, Kaniarkali, Ottanthullal, and Arjuna Nritham have in some way or the other contributed to the development of Kathakali. Of all performance art forms, Theyyam (a ritual dance form), Mutiyettu (a ritual dance-drama), and Kalaripayattu (an ancient martial art form), have significantly shaped various aspects of Kathakali.

Kootiattam @India International Centre, New Delhi.

@India International Centre, New Delhi.

Kootiattam, the only extant Sanskrit theatre in all of India, has also significantly influenced the development of Kathakali, especially its costumes, makeup, acting techniques, and gestures.

Kathakali was formalised as a classical art form in the 17th century. Its beginnings can be traced back to Krishnanattam, or the Dance of Krishna, which was authored by Manaveda, a Zamorin of Kozhikode. The Zamorin was inspired by the Geeta Govinda (written by the Sankrit poet named Jayadeva) and created a text called Krishna Geeti. The dance-drama based on this text is known as Krishnanattam. Legend has it that the Tampuran of Kottarakkara once invited the Krishnanattam troupe to perform at his palace. The Kozhikode Zamorin, however, refused saying that the court in Kottarakkara would never be able to fully appreciate this art form. A scorned Kottarakkara Thampuran then took it upon himself to compose his own dance-drama, based on the adventures of Ram, and called it Ramanattam.

Another king, Kottayam Thampuran, is credited with the creation of Kathakali as a distinct dance-drama when he wrote four plays based on stories from the Mahabharata, which were staged in a stylised form of Krishnanattam. This form was called Kathakali and became popular all across Kerala. The term is coined from the words ‘katha’ (story) and ‘kali’ (play).

How caste dictated the development of Kathakali is also fascinating. Its precursors, Koodiyattam and Krishnanattam, were performed inside temples exclusively for the gods and witnessed only by members of the higher castes. Contrarily, Kathakali was performed outside the temple walls. As a result, more people were allowed to see it, although it still excluded many people in the lower castes. In its glory days, Kathakali was taught at a kalari (training school) where the ashan (guru) would mete out rigorous training to his disciples. Eleven-hour training sessions were not unheard of and corporal punishment was the norm to shape the students into master performers.

A few days ago, I asked my cousin if she’d accompany me to a Kathakali performance. My rather alarmed cousin told me she’d be happy to drop me off at the venue instead. Appeals to other members of the family were also met with a lukewarm response.

Is Kathakali’s popularity waning? I hear of Kathakali being taught to international students in foreign universities, but does this translate to an increase in its audience? It is definitely one of the most recognised classical art forms in the country. However, performances that once ran the course of an entire night have now been edited into two hour recitals for modern-day audiences. Will adapting to modern conveniences help in sustaining Kathakali, or will it be seen as an end of a glorious art in its most original form?