Eugenio Barba introducing Kathakali
On the southern coast of India, the three-hundred-year-old Kathakali ritual theatre still flourishes, a mixture of dance and pantomime, religious inspiration and mythological tradition.
The plays describe extraordinary events involving gods, demons, and legendary characters. They all have one common characteristic: good and the gods always triumph over evil and the demons. The actor acts out the struggle between good and evil exclusively through the motions of his body, and the subjects of the plays are as well known to the audience as the myths of the Greek trilogies were to the Athenians.
Through his gestures and his mimicry, the Kathakali actor recreates the atmosphere and the action of the drama while describing to the audience the action’s locale. His technique is much closer to the Chinese opera than to the European mime or ballet, which tells a story through a direct or “exoteric” technique. In the Oriental ballet, on the contrary, a cipher is used. Each gesture, each little motion is an ideogram which writes out the story and can be understood only if its conventional meaning is known. The spectator must learn the language, or rather the alphabet of the language, to understand-what the actor is saying. This alphabet of signs is complex. There are nine motions of the head, eleven ways of casting a glance, six motions of the eyebrows, four positions of the neck. The sixty-four motions of the limbs cover the movements of the feet, toes, heels, ankles, waist, hips-in short, all the flexible parts of the body. The gestures of the hands and fingers have a narrative function and they are organized in a system of fixed figures called mudras (“signs” in Sanskrit). Those mudras are the alphabet of the acting “language.”
The face expresses the emotions of the actor. If he is terror-struck, he raises one eyebrow, then the other, opens his eyes wide, moves his eyeballs lathis nostrils flare out, his cheeks tremble and his head revolves in jerky motions. To express paroxysmal rage, his eyebrows quiver, his lower eyelids rise on his eyes, his gaze becomes fixed and penetrating, his nostrils and lips tremble, his jaws are clamped tight, and he stops breathing to bring about a change in his physiognomy. There are sets of facial motions to express not only feelings and emotions, but traits of character of a more permanent nature, such as generosity, pride, curiosity, anxiety in the face of death, etc. However, the actor does not rely exclusively on prearranged mechanical gestures to express emotions. He cannot reach his audience unless his own imagination and motions come into play. The old masters of the Kathakali have a rule which says:
“Where the hands go to represent an action, there must go the eyes; where the eyes go, there must go the mind, and the action pictured by the hands must beget a specific feeling which must be reflected on the actor’s face.”
From this rule we can see that the face is the emotional counterpart of the story told, not by somebody else, but by the actor’s own hands. In short, there is a double structure: the actor must resort simultaneously to two different sets of technique to express the two complementary aspects of a story, the narrative and the emotional. His hands “tell” the former, while his face expresses the latter.
Tadg O’Keefe introducing Kathakali
Kathakali Facial Expressions
The future of Kathakali?
The BBC’s Megha Mohan went to a now-closed traditional Kathakali school, one that gave birth to its own style, the Kalluvazhi Chitta: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/world-asia-india-35473499/a-rare-performance-of-india-s-kathakali-dance