Kathakali – a magnificent art or a struggle for survival?

Kathakali – a magnificent art or a struggle for survival?
Kathakali – a magnificent art or a struggle for survival?
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The ancient story-telling art of Kathakali is one of the most enthralling features of Kerala. Artistes whose faces and torsos are painted in a myriad colours and dressed in splendid costumes perform this dance drama to narrate the universal struggle between good and evil. For performers, fans and audiences, Kathakali is much more than a dance form. It is an act of devotion portrayed through art and is mastered through years of patient learning and practice. But now, the magnificence of Kathakali seems to be crumbling. It is starting to earn the reputation of being “a poor man’s rich art”.

Kathakali artistes are being forced to struggle for survival as opportunities to perform the art are dwindling day by day and the main source of income for this art form remains restricted to tourism. Sixty-year-old Vijayan is an Ashan (teacher). He has performed the art for decades and also trained hundreds of budding performers in the tradition. He considers himself one among those who have chosen to stick to Kathakali’s core values. He says the glorious period of Kathakali artistes has ended. “Artistes who unabashedly make a business out of Kathakali can survive. Others who stuck to its core values face the danger of perishing” Vijayan says. “During the tourist season, theatres in Kerala organise daily performances. Almost all the viewers are foreigners. Those who perform at theatres have a permanent income. Others struggle to live” he rues.

The payment for an artiste depends on the seniority. The senior-most Ashan with at least 30 years of experience receives the highest payment which can go up to Rs.20000 per play. Others get a paltry average of Rs.1000 per performance. Those who do not perform for a tourist audience either by choice or a lack of opportunity, find themselves with just two or three performances in a year. Abysmal pay packages are only one angle to the story. A Kathakali costume costs up to Rs.1.5 lakh, the crown, which is an important part of the costume, alone costs Rs.75000. If the performance is booked through an agency, agents take away half of the payment. “I am in this field for past 10 years, and I am able to survive only because of theatre plays. Off- seasons are a struggle. I don’t think there is a solution when it comes to job opportunities for us,” Sasidharan, a Kathakali artiste from Kochi mourns. Earlier, Kathakali performances were a regular feature at temple festivals in Kerala. Performances throughout the night would draw large audiences. “Very few temples choose Kathakali for the festivals these days and the number of viewers is not more than 70. In the yore, temple premises used to get crowded during the performance. But now the younger generation is disconnected from traditional arts,” Sasidharan says.

Sugeendran, who has been singing in accompaniment with Kathakali performers for the past 20 years in Kerala Kathakali center, Kochi, feels that India is losing an art of patience. “It takes a minimum of 6 years to learn the different veshams (roles). Even the make-up it takes around 2 hours. One needs 30 years to become a perfect artiste and the path to perfection is not easy. In this fast-moving world, nobody has this patience. Performances that used to last for 6 hours have now become capsules of an hour or two,” he says.

In recent years, Kathakali artistes have been desperately trying to preserve their art form by adapting to various transformations. According to Sugeendran, foreigners are more interested in this art form than the natives. There are many artistes who have taken Kathakali around the world. It started going abroad as a theatre form from 1967. So some talented artistes started to transform Bible stories and Shakespearean plays as Kathakali script.

“Traditionally Kathakali is associated with Hindu mythology. But some broke the tradition to survive. And those plays are great success abroad.” Sugeendran adds. He also says that poverty, desperation and disenchantment of people with traditional arts weakens the spirit of a dedicated Kathakali artiste.

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