How beautiful it is to look at, never have I seen or heard anything like it- Nalacharitam, Unnayi Warrier
Nila looks her best at night. She is resplendent in the rains, full and flowing. The lazy river is antithetical to the typical Keralite who wakes up at the crack of dawn and shuts shop at sunset. Nila belongs to the night, ripples of moonlight gleaming on her silvery waters. Nila likes being not merely the protagonist, but the solitary character to her own story. It is from her story that we borrow the beginnings to the story of Kathakali. It is on her banks that Kerala Kalamandalam, the premier institution of Kathakali was founded almost a century ago. It is on her banks that my father bought his first house in Kerala.
Painkulam is a small village in Shornur, the house we bought is part of someone’s ancestral house. It is ever so slightly odd to live in someone’s ancestral house, there’s no telling how many generations have grown up here. The newly painted walls, the tiled floors, the Usha ceiling fan, all hide layers of musty old stories. It’s usually in the still of the night or during a power cut in the monsoon that my little box-like room becomes claustrophobic with someone else’s ghosts. My father tells me that it is the ancestral house of a kathakali artist. A chutti artist, a glorified version of the regular makeup-artist. The man currently lives in America. As most stories are, his was also a love story. He fell in love with an American woman who came to learn Kathakali and went back with her to the U.S. Today he’s exported the Kathakali makeup tradition to the U.S and given it new forms and a new name and seems to be doing pretty well with some highly acclaimed art exhibitions. My father claims that it is the ghosts he’s left behind that have pushed me into kathakali. Perhaps it’s just that. The proximity to the Kalamandalam, an old veshakaran’s ghost, or simply a renewed interest in theatre. But a little more digging into why kathakali came back into my life, reveals more.
As a child I must have been terrified of Poothana. In full costume, she was even more of a demoness than I had imagined when I read the stories. That image of Poothana trying to kill the baby, the god I worshipped, stuck in my mind as the all-encompassing figure of evil. Years later when I started researching Hindu mythology and its many manifestations in India, Poothana came back to me. She had haunted me as a demoness when I was a child, but now she haunted me in her vesham as the noble woman. I read the story again, and this time as a Kathakali padam. I went back and looked for the demons and the gods in Kathakali, in an effort to find the heroes and villains of my own story. I was no longer a child who believed in the good of the gods, but I was more importantly not the child who believed in the evil of the demons. Kathakali became a synecdoche for the various understandings and manifestations of caste in Kerala.
excerpt from Vidooshakan- the Harlequin.
Find part(1) here