Researching a world theatre tradition

For the last 12 years I have been researching Kathakali, and as time goes on I see more and more ways to find out about the history of a tradition. Also, as time goes on I come across more and more conflicting pieces of information. It is therefore essential to cross reference all your information, find a range of sources to refer to and also check, double check and triple check you understand what you are reading before you choose to share it with others. This blog will look at all the different ways you can go about carrying out research into a tradition, and will provide Kathakali sources you may want to use yourself. 

To whet your appetite for Kathakali watch this introductory video, which you can find when you click on the link. Kathakali is the face of Kerala. This is a fun video, but it is lacking in sources. We see some of the people talking, but we do not know their names, cannot reference them in a presentation and the video is not professionally sourced. It is a good starting point to find out some information, but to quote facts they state you would need to check these are facts, and have a reliable source to back them up with. 

The first information I got about Kathakali was from books that I read when I was living in Brazil. This told me about the historical context, and said that it was done by men and started in about 1700. There was information about the make-up costumes and some detail about characters. Through reading I had a very vague idea about what it looked like in performance. I did have the idea that it included music, some singing and movement. There was also this mystery language called mudras, and I suspected they sang in a local language. One of the key sources I used at this stage was the following book:

Kathakali – The art of the non-worldly” Edited by Dr Pratapraditya Pal. Marg Publications 1993.

When I first got to India to start learning Kathakali I realised that there was a lot more complexity to the art form than I had previously suspected and learnt that the rhythms, phrasing and footwork were key to the art form. My classes with Keshavan Kalamandalam started with the footwork and learning the rhythms by rote. I had not come across these rhythms and foot patterns in any written sources at this stage (known as the ANGIKABHINAYA), and since, the only books that seems to document them quite well are:

Kathakali dance-drama: where gods and demons come to play” by Phillip Zarilli

The Art of Kathakali” by Avinash Pandeya

“Kathakali dance theatre” by Gopalakrishnan

Still, I would never have known how to read the detailed notes by these 3 authors had I not had the good fortune to do them practically with my teacher. So, be aware that you will always need to do the work practically too. You may find instructional videos, be able to watch performance and refer to the notes in the book or consult with a performer.

Much of the information I have about Kathakali comes from my teachers own mouths. They have told me the origin of the curtain, the raw materials used to make the make-up and also details about the costumes and some stories. Of course, you may not always be able to speak to someone as a primary source, so you will have to rely on research material. My current teacher Vijayan always manages to correct something I do, so be aware that you will never be perfect, but try to do your best, as specifically as you can. 

Some of the most useful resources for Kathakali are written by performers themselves or are websites created by artists or Kathakali centres. Others you may refer to are:

Journal – “Kathakali – the aesthetics of communication” Marg magazine, published by Shapoorji Pallonju and Co Ltd

Convention: mudras – “The language of kathakali” G. Venu, published by Natana Kairali

Websites: 

Kerala Kathakali centre – http://www.kathakalicentre.com

Kathakali collection – http://theatrefutures.org.uk/kathakali/collection-overview/a-kathakali-general/

Cyber Kerala – http://www.cyberkerala.com/kathakali/index.html

I hope you have found this useful and will be excited to carry out your own research into a tradition. 

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