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Kathakali is a combination of ‘nratya’ and ‘abhinaya’ – dance and dramatic interpretation of a theme which is usually a narration : a story; something denotative of what the term Kathakali literally means. Kathakali’s literal meaning is ‘story-play’, that is, revealing a story while performing on the stage, and performing to reveal the story while performing a dance. Initially Kathakali synthesised with the Aryan cult of dance the Dravidian worship cult of the Mother Goddess. In the course of time Kathakali began performing literary classics like the plays of Kalidasa, Bhasha and Harsha. Broadly, the stories enacted were taken from temple bards whose solo performances were known as ‘Prabandha-koothu’ – narrative tales, and their group performances, ‘Kudiyattam’. Kathakali was born of ‘Kudiyattam’. Around mid-seventeenth century, inspired by Jaideva’s Gita-Govinda there evolved ‘Krishnattam’ mandating the dancer to adorn like Krishna. By the end of the seventeenth century there spread the cult of Rama and like ‘Krishnattam’ there evolved ‘Ramattam’. Thus, ‘Kathakali’ in the process of its growth had these religious leanings, and hence a spiritual fervour as a result ‘Kathakali’s masks were cast either as Krishna or as Rama.
Thus, a blend of many forms, Kathakali is essentially a devotional dance. Here the dancer has been styled on strict Vaishnava line sharing features from Rama’s iconography. A single figure in solo dance form the sculpted dancer represents ‘Prabandha-Koothu’, Kathakali’s initial form. It does not incorporate even the mradanga-player, an almost essential accompaniment of Kathakali. Mradanga is a cylindrical long drum with narrow openings for leather-mounting associated with Kathakali since earliest times. In most dance-forms the dancer is seen translating the text recited along the dance in his ‘mudrayen’ – body-gestures. However, the Kathakali dancer does not do it. As in Krishnattam, Kathakali lets the singer deal exclusively with the text leaving the dancer free for choreographic interpretation. Kathakali is a finer expression for while most other dances have just twenty-four ‘mudrayen’, Kathakali has seven hundred. Facial expressions, mainly through the eyes trained to cast eight glances, are of cardinal significance in Kathakali.
This description by Prof. P.C. Jain and Dr. Daljeet. Prof. Jain specializes on the aesthetics of literature and is the author of numerous books on Indian art and culture. Dr. Daljeet is the curator of the Miniature Painting Gallery, National Museum, New Delhi. They have both collaborated together on a number of books.
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