In July and August 2019 I was lucky enough to be preparing for a Kathakali performance that would take place in the Kerala Kathakali Centre, India. Having studied Kathakali for over 10 years it was now time for me to perform in one of the most perfectly structured Kathakali plays ever written. I was going to be playing the role of Panchali in “Kalyanasaugandhikam” (“The Flower of Good Fortune”).
As I was going through my own process of preparing for the performance I realised that this process was something that would help teachers prepare their students for this aspect of the Research Presentation task, and really understand what is required for criterion B of the assessment.
For criterion B students are required to do 2 things:
- Talk about how they practically and physically explored their convention. In other words, the process they went through to learn how to do the convention in their own body.
- Talk about how they applied their convention to the moment of theatre. Again, this is a process of application, that explains choices made and stages of the moment in terms of applying the convention.
For my performance I was playing the role of Panchali in ‘Kalyanasaugandhikam’ (‘The flower of good fortune’ from the Mahabharata). To be able to do this I needed to know the mudras (hand gestures) for the scene, words sung by the singer (in Manipravalam), the kalashams and iratti (footwork & dance steps), navarasas (facial expressions) and use of stage space.
Prior to going to Kerala to perform I was able to do some of the groundwork myself. I had met my teacher the year before to go through the scene, and had made notes on what I needed to learn.
I will use the first verse (two lines) of the performance as illustration of my process (there were 5 verses to learn). The play opens with Panchali on stage and she does some mandirma (mime) to reflect what the singer says. He sings about the cool air, bees buzzing around, scent of the flower etc. She then sees the flower falling from the sky and landing on the ground in front of her. Then the mudras and acting begin.
The first lines/verse she performs is:
EN KANAVAR KANDALAM NEE
My husband see/look you
ENGA LORU KOOSUMUM
My one flower
To perform this verse all conventions of Kathakali are combined, but to learn them separately, this is the process I went through:
Stage 1 of the process – the conventions
- learnt the mudras alone, so that I was doing them at the right level, correct direction of movement and with one or two hands
- tried to do the mudras saying the words, so that I could start learning the manipravalam
- do the mudras while watching my teacher, to check I was doing them correctly
- worked on the footwork that would be performed after the verse had been performed. This was the first kalasham.
- going back to the conventions I then watched a range of performances of the moment to see what navarasas (facial expressions I needed). I then practised those separately to apply them later.
Stage 2 of the process – the moment, applying conventions
This next stage was something I also did before I got to work again with my teacher. I needed to now apply everything I had learnt to the moment. For the line I did the following:
- Made sure I could remember each mudra that was needed for the verse
- Applied it in order, with the words written up on the wall for me to follow
- Added the music and singer, so that I could be sure of pace
- Worked on the musical phrasing to add transitional footwork between lines 1 and 2
- Watched the first verse several times done by my teacher and other performers to see if there were details I had missed
- Worked again and again until I was able to do the entire verse without looking at the words
- Tried doing the verse again with only the sound of the singer and the drums
Stage 3 – working with my teacher and getting ready for performance
This phase was the most intense, as we only had 5 days and I was going to be performing in front of an audience and with seasoned Kathakali performers (who perform every day). I knew that I had to be correct, precise in all my movements and highly professional. So, with my teacher we worked on the following:
- height of my elbows, angle of my hands, direction I was facing, height of my chin
- size of movement of my arms and length of steps for the kalasham and other movement around the stage
- how to follow the singer and work with the percussion and drums
- how to behave when I was not performing, when the focus was on Bhima, who was the other Kathakali actor on stage
- there was a surprise addition of artem (speaking mudras without the singer saying anything) with Bhima which I also had to learn
- then there was a specific entrance, salutation and exit
When it came to the day of performance I had to put on the make-up and costume. That is when you have to stay very calm, as the costume is heavy and hot, the make-up is quite stifling and then there is also the seed in my eye to add to the effect.
Of course, for your students they will never do anything this sophisticated, and they will only be required to focus on one convention, but I hope that this blog has helped get an idea of the processes involved for criterion B.