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Kathakali: Ancient Indian Theater at MLK Middle School By KEN BULLOCK

Special to the Planet
Tuesday April 12, 2005

“Kathakali discovered long ago that the secret of the Great Stories is that they have no secrets.” 

—Arundhati Roy, The God of Small Things 

Kathakali, the great classical dance-drama of South India, will be given a rare American performance by 10 noted senior artists from the major theater institutes of Kerala state, India, one night only, 6 p.m. on Saturday, April 16 at Martin Luther King Middle School. 

The touring company will present a play from the ancient epic The Ramayana, “Baali Vadhom, The Vanquishing of Baali”—as well as “Poothana Moksham, The Salvation of Poothana,” from The Bhagavatham. 

Kathakali has inspired modern European and American performing artists from choreographer Martha Graham to stage director Jerzy Grotowski, who adapted Kathakali exercises for his Polish Laboratory Theatre in the 1960s. 

Unlike Kathak (which shares the same Sanskrit root word for “story”) and other Indian dances, Kathakali is fully theatrical (its name literally meaning “story-theater”). It dramatizes rather than accompanies or illustrates a story or poem, utilizing an elaborately stylized language of spectacle, mimetic gesture and movement. It is taken from ancient folk dances, ritual, martial arts and Sanskrit theater (Kuttyattam), all of which are still performed in Kerala. 

The stories and techniques for telling these stories seem to have been spread throughout Asia by Buddhist monks, even influencing the far-flung classical theaters of Japan, Noh and Kabuki. Putting on the spectacular costumes and make-up—recognized as an art in itself—“takes hours before a performance to transform the actors” into mythical gods, heroes and beasts, according to Katherine Kunhiraman of Kalanjali-Dances Of India, the Berkeley performing company and school that is co-sponsoring the Kathakali performance along with the Malayalee Association of Northern California and the local producers, Kathakali By The Bay. The American tour is produced by Anamica. 

Katherine Kunhiraman’s husband, K. P. Kunhiraman, who founded Kalanjali with her here in 1975, is himself a Kathakali principal actor, one of a handful to live in America. Kalanjali has performed scenes and dances from Kathakali, but full-scale performances in America by Indian companies are rare. There have been only a few in the Bay Area over the past 30 years. 

“Baali Vadhom” follows the story of The Ramayana, which tells of the split between brothers Sugriva and Baali, ruler of the kingdom of monkey men, a pact between Sri Rama and Sugriva, and the rescue of Sri Rama’s wife, Sita, from her abductor, Ravana, king of Sri Lanka, by an army of monkey men. K. P. Kunhiraman chose the story for the show. He said that it shows a range of the character types of Kathakali, as well as the characters and story line of The Ramayana. “Poothana Moksham” features the performance of Margi Vijayakumar, who specializes in female roles (all Kathakali actors are male), as Poothana, sent to kill Krishna, who becomes enraptured by the divine baby. There are elements to the tale reminiscent of Herod’s Slaughter of the Innocents from the Christian Gospels, as well as medieval miracle plays. 

Dancer and UC Berkeley alumna Barbara Framm, longtime associate of Kalanjali and filmmaker of The Golden Thread, which documents the Kunhiramans’ journey to America 30 years ago and their return to his village in Kerala to celebrate his 70th birthday in 2002, recalled the scene when a Kathakali troupe came to perform all night in Kunhiraman’s honor. 

“Beginning with a parade to announce the show, it was amazing to see the excitement it generated, involving the whole village, from the oldest down to little children, as well as people coming from surrounding vilages—maybe a thousand people,” she said. “In a famous fight scene, they were performing on a crude cement platform with broken steps up to it. Suddenly, oblivious to any danger, they flew down the steps in full costume and those heavy crowns, running right into the audience, doing the whole fight scene with their special yelling right in front of me and around the crowd. It was amazing, the way they engaged us.” 

This intensity is a mark of the lifelong training and dedication of the actors. 

“Kathakali is completely a way of life,” Katherine Kunhiraman said. “The performers are wholly committed to what is for them a devotional practice. Kunhiraman tells people who ask him when he’ll retire, ‘I will do this until I drop.’ It’s more than an artistic exercise. But it’s the unearthly visual experience that first attracts Western people to it. The actors, in costumes designed to lift them above the human level—they perform on the ground or on a low stage—wearing those golden crowns that make them look as though they’re dancing in the sky.” 

Kathakali will perform “Baali Vadhom, The Vanquishing of Baali” and “Poothana Moksham, The Salvation of Poothana” at Martin Luther King Middle School, 1781 Rose St., 6 p.m., Saturday April 16. Supertitles will be provided. Tickets are $25 and up, $12 for students.  

For details, call (925) 784-6718 or see kathakalibythebay.com, or anamica.org.