Discover the World of Kathakali

Ng Yi-Sheng

August 30, 2015

Like I said, I’m amazed at how many people turned up for this gig. I honestly thought I’d be the only person here (plus a handful of staff) watching the actors paint their faces in the darkness.

Not so! There was a crowd of teen girls from Bhaskar Arts Academy already there when I set foot on the lawn of the Fort Canning Foothills, eyebrows and sequins on fleek.

And as the hour drew closer, more people trickled in – old fans and friends of TheatreWorks, tall white randos, even families with little kids.

Keng Sen welcomed us all in the Galeri Utama, introducing us to choreographer Santha Bhaskar. The two go way back – she performed in his production of Trojan Women in 1990, held in a quarry. Seems she played a variety of gods.


The big stars here, however, are the kathakali dancers from Kerala Kalamandalam, an arts-based university in Kerala. Back in 1954, some of them staged a performance of Dussasana Vadham (The Slaying of Dussasana) at Victoria Theatre; we’ll be seeing a replay of that historic event in next week’s Smriti Padha.

When Keng Sen visited Kerala, he saw how the students got up at 5:00 am to do exercises under their masters. He thought that was kinda cool, so he figured he’d make an event of letting SIFA attendees gawk at their pre-dawn rituals too.

And yes, we had to get up at the same time, so we could “feel the morning”, he said.


This is them doing their eye and facial exercises.


And this is them doing their physical exercises.

In Singapore, there’s this weird stereotype that while Indians make great runners in athletics, they can’t jump. Evidently they didn’t get the memo in Kerala.

And this is them doing their makeup and costumes. It’s a three to four-hour process!

You might think they’re sleeping, but they’re actually in a state of meditation, becoming the characters they’re playing. There’s no separation between actor and role in this art form. You’re not playing a god or a demon: you are the god, you are the demon.

TBH, I felt really weird during this whole viewing session. Here we were, a crowd of artsy-fartsy types, snapping away at an everyday ceremony with our smartphone cameras as if these folks were animals at a zoo. Exoticism, objectification, insert postcolonial theory buzzword here.

But Dr Kaladran assured me that the dancers are used to being watched – and folks gather even in Kerala to goggle at the preparations for a show. Noorlinah Mohamed later pointed out that audiences of Chinese opera also gather to watch the stage being set up and the actors painting their faces; that audiences of wayang kulit also peek behind the screen while the dalang is laying out his puppets. The whole business of maintaining an illusion in theatre, of keeping backstage separate from the stalls, is a western concept, imported lately to our continent.


I dunno, I still felt like a creep.

At 6:30am, everyone gathered in the Galeri Utama again so Dr Kaladran could give us a proper lecture on the art form.

Dr K: We welcome you to the feast of colours and cultures and music… Well, music is not here now. They will come next week.

Earlier, he'd told me that kathakali’s one of the most elaborate of the traditional Indian art forms – a show requires at least 14 performers. In contrast, the roadshow-style bharatanatyam we’re used to in Singapore is a stripped down affair.

Dr K: There is training for all the different parts of the body. It’s fine-tuning the body and the limbs. It’s all done separately: in a university you'll have a class to teach the eyebrow movements in one class, cheeks movmements, neck movements, shoulder movements, leg exercises. Each part of the body is trained separately, and finally in a full-fledged classroom, everything is brougt together, and this is accompanied with the vocals and the instrumentation.

Whatever we do of our normal life is cut off. We are making a language with our eyes, our eyebrows, our hands, our cheeks. Everything is stylized. Indian dance tradition is like that, and kathakali is the greatest realization of that. There is no realism in it. 

He explained how it emerged in temples in the 17th century, around the same time as the development of the Malayalam language; how it's used to tell tales from the Ramayana, the Mahabharata and the Bhagavad Purana (i.e. the life of Lord Krishna); how it's a non-verbal form, with vocalists singing summaries of the action in Sanskrit ragas, performing dialogue in Sanskritised Malayalam (yes, that is a thing); how the only language of the dancers is the roars of the demons and the 24 hand gestures (which in combination can birth a vocabulary of about 500 words).

Dr K: Sometimes the signifier is more important in kathakali than the signified.

Also the use of flowers to redden the eyes of demons (you leave it in the eye and turn it around and your blood vessels will pop out; it's supposed to be actually good for your health), and the teachers spend the monsoon months using their feet to massage every bit of their students' bodies except their faces - an instance of influence from kalaripayyatu. And the way meditation is not taught per se: it comes naturally with the physical training students receive in all other aspects of their education.

Folks started to ask questions. Like, how long do actors train?

Dr K: It takes 6 years minimum to be conversant with all characters. It would take 10 years to grasp all the subtleties.

And at what age do actors retire?

Dr K: Even when they become 60 or 70 you can still play the lead roles, because of the thick makeup. You can go on acting until you pay your natural debt.

Audience Member: Like the Indian movie actors!

Dr K: Yes, the Indian movie actors may have learned from the kathakali actors.

Are there women kathakali dancers? The answer's yes, and in fact in the early 20th century many performers were women. But they faded away from participation soon after that, and kathakali is now an extremely male bastion, with men playing both male and female roles. There are women's kathakali troupes that were formed in the 1970s, but the quality of their performances are debated.

Dr K: I don’t want to comment on it because it’s a gender question. The male actors say that the women don’t have the strength to do the demonic characters, but the women contradict it. I don’t want to join the controversy.

Also, are there kathakali performances about subjects other than the Hindu epics?

Dr K: There are new plays being experimented: King Lear, Iliad, or Rustam and Sohrab. In this way so many stories have been performed in kathakali. In all the traditional dance and theatre traditions, form is the most important. More often than not, body becomes the theme for the form. When you perform Macbeth or the Mahabharata, there isn’t much difference. You are using the form and traidtions which cannot be changed overnight.

But if you want to change the form, that’s another question. Then the question comes if you are presenting kathakali, or baharatanatyam anor odissi, and then there’s an identity crisis. In spite of this, experimentations are going on.

He talked about other ways the form is changing. How in the old days, performances would last the whole night, but now only a few temples keep that tradition.

Dr K: In an IT world, you cannot have a performance for more than three hours now. Otherwise you have to go to Paris to see it. Theatre de Soleil. You can watch a performance beginning at 8 in the evening and ending at 8 in the morning.

Also how a certain red makeup element is made from a stone (or a plant or a beetle?), and he has no idea what they'll do when it goes extinct, as all things do.

But they'll manage.

Dr K: Transformation is natural to any dance form. If a dance form does not adapt it will die out. Kathakali is such a dynamic art form, so it is well suited to society.

By then it was time for our free breakfast at Fabulous Baker Boy! Spinach and feta pastries and aloo tikka, yum yum!

Sadly, the chappatis tasted like cardboard. But those things that look like pooris are actually deep-fried puff pastry, and they were fabulous for mopping up the curry.

(The dancers said it was delicious, but a lot of them were loading up on muffins and cornflakes in milk.)

So yeah, this was a pretty radical session. So is this gonna be a thing now? Will people really turn up at 5:30am for the arts, just because there's free breakfast and nothing clashes?

Maybe so. Like I said to Tay Tong, "Morning is the new night."


A postscript, by the way. When I was leaving to take a nap at 72-13, I happened to glimpse another group of people performing another set of choreographic ritual exercises at Fort Canning Foothills.


  • 2015