Arts & Events

Around & About--Theater: Rare Performance of Kathakali, Classical Theater from India

Ken Bullock
Friday March 27, 2015 - 08:22:00 AM

Kathakali--almost everyone has seen at one time or another color photos of Kathakali performers ... on a travel poster, in a magazine ... usually the striking green, made-up face of an actor-dancer playing a god or a hero, maybe taking a great leap up in the air, wearing a gold crown and an ornate, colorful costume. 

But to see a troupe from India of these actors with their accompanying singers and musicians, who have performed for centuries in temples and to torchlight all night in the fields at harvest is a rare thing in America--despite the fact that Berkeley was home for over three decades to a second-generation Kathakali performer, Kalakshetra K. P. Kunhiraman, who taught and performed Indian dance and theater with his wife and lifelong collaborator Katherine, still directing their Kalanjali: Dances of India project here since Kunhiraman's death last year in Chennai (Madras) as he prepared to return to San Francisco to receive a lifetime achievement award at the Ethnic Dance Festival. . 

Kunhiraman and Katherine performed scenes, never having a complete professional troupe with musicians and singers to perform full-scale dramas from the old repertory. But this Sunday at 4 in the CET Soto Theatre, 701 Vine Street in San José, famed Kathakali actor Sandanam Balakrishnan will perform the most famous scenes from Kalayana Saugandhika, The Flower of Good Fortune, a story from the epic Mahabharata and one of the most famous stage pieces in the repertoire, with three actors and the full complement of two drummers and two singers. 

There's no dialogue in Kathakali, but expressiveness is at a high level: the actors make sounds particular to their character and elegantly display rapid hand gestures--mudras--that are kind of hieroglyphic signals to the sense of the scene being played. The singers tell the story in poetry to the drums, the actors dancing and performing acrobatic moves often related to martial arts. The stories are mythological, filled with wonder and a very down-to-earth humor at the same time. 

Kalayana Saugandhika tells of a mighty warrior, Bhima, sent by his wife to find a rare flower, while he tears through beautiful gardens, disturbing the meditation of the great, divine monkey Hanuman, who disguises himself as an old monkey, asleep in Bhima's path ... A comic scene develops when Bhima confidently thinks he'll move the monkey's tail with his club, encounters humorous problems--finally discovering he and Hanuman are related, they dance together. 

(Hanuman was Kunhiraman's principal role, as well as his father's, distinguished by particularly fantastic costume and make-up and a high-pitched monkey laugh.) 

Kathakali is one of the few classical theaters still alive today--there are none in the West; Greek Tragedy and Comedy are not only long gone, we don't know exactly how they were performed. With its costumery and elaborate make-up, its dynamic and complex gestures and acrobatic movements, its driving rhythmic accompaniment and magnificent singing, it's no wonder Kathakali decisively influenced some of the greatest postwar theater directors in the West, including Jerzy Grotowski, Eugenio Barba of Odin Teatret and the International School of Theatre Anthropology, and Arianne Mnouchkine. 

Tickets: $25-$50: or 

--A video of another Kathakali troupe performing the encounter of Bhima and Hanuman. (YouTube has a series which show much of what Sunday's show will offer.) 


--A half-hour 1977 KQED documentary on Kathakali, narrated by Katherine Kunhiraman with Kunhiraman's splendid demonstration of the gestures and stylized expressions of the art, which take years of physical training to achieve, and the opening of the same play, Kunhiraman playing Bhima, which they presented the next year at the first Ethnic Dance Festival