Dances of India - 2016

Kathakali and Yakshagana

By Dr. Maha Gingrich

We are celebrating the 18th anniversary of Saathee Magazine this month.

What a pleasure it has been to write over 100 Dances of India articles and share them with you. Many of you said you save these articles, many students use these articles as a reference material for their senior projects, college papers, and as a learning tool. I get inquiries from budding teachers with questions on choreography, usage of hand gestures and many more.

Since Saathee has gone online, it has become an even larger asset to many people across the USA and world. I now get inquiries from other parts of the US and I send these links to people I know in India, England and Australia. I feel honored to be able to share important information about Dances of India and I look forward to many more years of celebrating these dance forms with Saathee Magazine.

I have been writing about major dance forms of India. I wrote about Kathak in the previous article. I want to share information about South Indian dances Kathakali (often confused with Kathak which has no resemblance) and Yakshagana. Both Yakshagana and Kathakali look very similar when you look at their costumes and makeup. They both draw their themes from epics like Ramayana and Mahabharata; both of them emphasize on rousing the sentiments of Raudra (anger) and Veera (valor); their ornaments, musical instruments and even the methods of presentation are similar. Their settings, the Bhagavata, and his accompaniments, the stage set in the middle of the surrounding audience and the oil-torch are similar; both are performed on significant occasions and festivals and both of them beat Chande, a high-pitched percussion instrument to invite the neighboring villagers/audience to the performance. I would like to explain the details of each dance form separately.

Kathakali is a Classical Dance-Drama of Kerala in South India that dates back to 17th century and is rooted in Hindu Mythology. Kathakali actually means, “Story-Play", and it has been a highly specialized dance style for ages. This dance style has been considerably influenced by the old Sanskrit dramas of Kerala called Kudiyattam, and also Krishna Atam or the dramatic stories of Lord Krishna.

When I was little, I saw Mahabharatham being staged by some great Kathakali dancers. First, I was a little scared by the facial makeup and the elaborate costumes and dance movements. I do not remember how that fear transformed into fascination. The movements were very powerful and hypnotic.

Kathakali is a harmonious combination of five forms of art:

1. Literature (Sahithyam); 2. Music (Sangeetham); 3. Painting (Chithram); 4. Acting (Natyam) 5. Dance (Nrithyam).

All the five forms of art have a very important place in this dance style. Its literature is poetic and dramatic.

Unlike other dance forms, the makeup used in Kathakali is a highly developed art, involving great skill in the application of the paints. I actually saw the dancers lay down on the floor to get their makeup done, as it takes quite a few hours to complete the face painting. Meticulous care is taken to see that each mask is perfectly applied on the face, with each color in its right place, to enhance the dramatic effect of the dance performance. This aids in doing the exaggerated and wonderful facial expressions. Each particular facemask represents a different type of character.

To act, the use of the eyes and eyebrows is far more evolved and involved than in Bharatha Natyam, Kuchipudi, Kathak or any other school of the classical dance. Eyes and eyebrows are constantly used to aid the process of communication in the most effective manner with great intensity. During the drama, the dancers do not speak, but they use varied hand movements known as “Mudras" and mime to constitute a complete sign language. The movements are explosive, accompanied by a nonstop drumming that begins before the performance and lasts throughout the whole dance-drama.

This is Kerala's rich contribution to the Indian classical dances, drama, and art.

Yakshagana Dance-Drama

The source of Yakshagana is very diverse. State of Karnataka claims its origin. State of Andhra Pradesh dates it back to 1250 A.D. This dance form has become common to many regions of India and has different names. Yakshagana was primarily a form of ballad and the players were called “Yakshas." A Ballad is a music literature, a song or a poem, especially in a traditional style, telling a story in a number of short regular stanzas. This was presented originally in only the music form and it was around the 16th century that musical plays were written by famous composers. The themes enacted were from the Bhagavatham, as well as the stories of epics from Ramayana and Mahabharatha. Linked deeply with religious fervor, the Sutradhara (storyteller) continues to amuse the audience by keeping up a running commentary throughout the play.

The costumes and make-up indicate the characteristics of each individual, hero or the villain. This style is musically of extreme interest as many ragas or tunes that they use are rare in Carnatic music. This dance style is performed only by men, like Kuchipudi dance style in the past. The most fascinating part of this dance style to me is the ability of dancers to make quick consecutive circles in mid-air while dancing. These dances come under unique and exotic dances of India, as they are not so common or practiced by all dancers in India. If you ever visit this part of India, I strongly suggest you to attend one of the live performances. It will be an unforgettable experience.