Some of you many already know that I have been learning Kathakali on and off for about 10 years. This blog is going to document my journey from when I started Kathakali to when I was recently privileged with being initiated into the Kathakali community as a performer. It gives an insight of what it takes to really learn theatre form another culture, and all the learning that goes on along with the lessons!
I started learning when I lived in Brazil, and took a flight from Sao Paulo to Cochin in Southern India (36 hours of travel), to train for a week in this amazingly physically demanding dance/theatre form, that is done traditionally only by men. A student of mine at the time, Rachel Griesinger, had been researching Kathakali for her IB Theatre research paper, and we had joked about going to India to try it. I had not used my professional development money for the last 2 years, and putting the monies together I was just about able to cover the flight and the visa.
That first week of training opened my eyes to a whole new world of theatre. The way I was taught was rote, where I was required to follow instructions of examples and just repeat until I got it right. My teacher (Mr Kesevan Kalamandalam) did not speak much English, so could not articulate well what I was doing wrong, so I had to just repeat slightly differently each time, and hope I was getting closer to what was intended.
When learning a theatre form that is rooted in culture and years of tradition it is paramount that the performer is specific in what they are doing, as they are upholding a style and need to respect the work and the art form itself. After one week of training I had grasped some of the footwork, training steps, facial expressions and the mudras (hand gestures that are used to communicate the story – performers do not speak), but as Kathakali takes 8 years on average to master (and that is full-time training), I returned to Brazil having only scratched the surface.
Let’s now fast forward 9 years. Since I first did Kathakali I have been returning to India at least once a year to train, initially at the centre where I first met my teacher (in a little village called Aranmular, at a centre called Vijnanakalavedi), but when that centre closed down I found at new teacher, Mr Vijayan, at the Kerala Kathaklai centre. When I moved to Mumbai for work, 5 years ago, I was able to train much more intensively and often, as I could visit Kerala in the holidays.
When I visited Kerala in July to set up a school trip for my students I asked my teacher if he thought I was ready to do my Arangettam (initiation performance) and perform the Purrapadu (20 minute specific choreography that includes all the steps that a Kathakali performer needs to know). He said he would teach me the dance, and then we would see how we get on.
Just so you can appreciate the complexity of this art form, let me just explain that normally the Purrapadu takes a year to learn. Students in a Kathakali training centre such at Kalamandalam will train every day, learning a new section of the choreography each day, to add to what they already know. Once the choreography has been learnt the students then practice with the music for about 6 months before they then perform. So, the process is 6 months, because the dance is a precise combination of steps, facial expressions, hand gestures and rhythms.
I learnt the dance over 4 days, practised every day for 2 months then returned for 2 lessons, one rehearsal with the music, one dress rehearsal and then it was time to perform. The intricacies of the training, the preparation for a temple of performance, and then the performance itself, all have specific details and procedures that are very specific. This blog is getting too long for me to include it all here, so read the next blog for how I became Krishna, ready to open the performance in the temple at the start of Diwali, and channel love to everyone there. This was my offering to the gods.