by C P Unnikrishnan

Oct 2001

I have been observing Kathakali on and off the stage for the past four decades and a half. Being a stage performer and a teacher of Life Science, I have been watching the course of Darwinism in our globally renowned art form. Has it evolved?............!
Biologically, yes. ‘cause, adaptation ability is an epifocal phenomenon in the survival of the fittest. But use and disuse leads to vestige formation and extinction too. Sad am I, as a lover of Kathakali. The very basic tenet of Kathakali has been its emphasis on ‘Elakiyaattam', the specific movements which accompany the deliberation of each and every hand gesture and emotional elucidation. This is lost in today's performance; not forgetting that it is secure in the hands of few who are not otherwise acclaimed.
‘Abhinaya' is suggestive imitation and to justify it the entire body language must be employed on the stage too. Unfortunately the recent trend, undoubtedly set by the top rank performers, is to restrict the term ‘abhinaya' to facial and gesture (hand) aspects alone. This has put Kathakali on its deathbed. The ‘nritha' from Krishnanaattam and ‘abhinaya' from Koodiyattam, to make it simple, is the beauty of and the democratic approach in Kathakali. If it would not be too pedantic, Dance and Drama together superimposed by the gorgeous facial makeup and costumes, is the soul of Kathakali. May be, every soul has to attain salvation and Kathakali is no exception to this rule. Can leave it at that point! No! with million emphasis is my humble opinion.

In the Kalari, (where teaching and learning take place) the rules of elakiyaattom are strictly adhered to by a serious teacher and students are taken to heavy task, if erred, even by unforeseen chance. Where does it vanish, when it comes on to the stage? Of course, ‘Very Senior Characters' (Aadyavasaana Kathaapaathrm) are allowed to judiciously omit some of them to ensure that the bhaava is not obliterated. But, it has become a contemporary practice that any character, at the discretion of the actor, can skip the specified elakiyaattom. The argument that the prime stress must be on the elucidation of the ‘vyabhichaari bhaavas', does not suggest the freedom to dilute or reject the stipulated techniques of abhinaya.

If the connoisseurs, critics and lovers of Kathakali are keeping quite, the soul of this form will soon merge with the eternal and hence invisible. Aesthetically, this fallout is more dangerous than a nuclear one. I, in all humility, appeal to all lovers of Kathakali, not hesitate to come forward and arrest the devolution. A rejuvenation therapy is urgently called for.

C P Unnikrishnan is a Kochi based Kathakali actor, critic and research scholar engaged at present in tracing the interlinks among the art forms of Kerala based on Bharatha's Natyasasthra.