Kathakali Music

Kathakali, the classical dancedrama of Kerala, is a many splendoured art. Its greatness lies in the fusion of various distinct components, each of which makes a significant contribution to the whole. The synergy wrought on stage is potent.Visually, Kathakali presents a breathtaking spectacle that transports one to an ethereal realm peopled by superhuman characters attired in dazzling costumes and made up in brilliant colours. The plays themselves are works of high literary merit, worthy of critical study and analysis in their own right. The abhinaya, punctuated with precise footwork and perfectly held mudra-s, is characterised by a depth and intensity that make it truly sublime. The music based on raga-s and tala-s, and reflecting a wide range of moods and emotions, also offers the listener hours of unalloyed enjoyment.

 Regrettably, much ignorance and prejudice persists even today towards Kathakali, especially in regard to its music. This, no doubt, was fuelled by a lack of a scientific and disciplined approach towards the subject by the practitioners themselves. Of late, however, more emphasis is being laid on sruti, purity of swara-s, identity of raga-s, and on melodious rendition; in the event, Kathakali music has acquired its own select circle of connoisseurs. The frequently held Kathakali pada kutcheri-s vocal concerts comprising Kathakali pada-s alone bear testimony to its present popularity. Recording companies have also brought out several cassettes of Kathakali music. Certainly, a finer understanding of the rudiments of the art will enhance one's appreciation not only of the music but of Kathakali itself.

 A Kathakali performance has two singers the ponnani or main vocalist and the sinkidi who provides vocal support. The ponnani wields the chengala, a metal disc on which the tala is marked with a wooden stick. The sinkidi keeps time with the ilathalam, a pair of large cymbals (see photo). Percussion is provided by the chenda, the maddalam and on occasion by the edakka.

The Kathakali singer's role in the conduct of the play cannot be overestimated. A soulful bhava-laden rendering with proper emphasis on the words contributes in no small measure to the success of the performance. Needless to say, thorough knowledge of all the other aspects of Kathakali and an excellent memory are indispensable.

The musical pieces rendered in Kathakali are sloka-s, dandaka-s and pada-s. A Kathakali play's author uses the former two to speak directly to the audience, as narrative devices to carry the story forward. The sloka-s are in Sanskrit metres and may be in pure Sanskrit or a mixture of Sanskrit and Malayalam. The pada-s comprise dialogues between the characters whose ideas, emotions and aspirations they embody, and form the bulk of the play's musical output. These are not composed in any metre, Sanskrit or Dravidian, unlike other classical poetic works. They are songs framed within specific raga-s and tala-s, and proficiency in classical music must therefore be deemed a prerequisite for a successful Kathakali author. Some plays also have 'kummi' pieces such as the perennial favourite Veer a virata kumara vibho in Irayimman Tampi's Uttara Swayamvaram and Jaya jaya Lokadinatha vibho in Kartika Tirunal's Narakasura vadham.

 Sopana Sangeetam, considered to be unique to Kerala, is the mode adopted by Kathakali musicians. 'Sopanam' translates as 'flight of steps' and various explanations have been offered for this nomenclature,- the most acceptable is the one pertaining to the steps in front of the sanctum sanctorum in temples standing on which the music is rendered.

Jayadeva's immortal classic Geeta Govinda is regarded as a milestone in the annals of music in Kerala. As in other parts of India, it attained tremendous popularity in Kerala and the practice of singing the ashtapadis in temples, set to select raga-s and tala-s in a particular style, soon came into vogue. This had tremendous impact on music in Kerala and scholars believe that the genre was adapted to Kathakali where it is enshrined in all its glory. In fact, one of the conventions observed as a prelude to the actual play is 'Melappadam' or 'Manjutara', which is an opportunity for the orchestra to display its virtuosity. The ashtapadi beginning Manjutara is traditionally sung here with the percussionists providing impressive rhythmic interludes. The close association of Kathakali music with Geeta Govinda is thus made amply evident.

As in Carnatic music, a system of raga-s and tala-s forms the basis of Sopana Sangeetam. The majority of raga-s employed here are the same as those prevalent in Carnatic music. Priya inanasa in Todi (Nalacharitam by Unnayi Warrier), Ambadi gunam varnippan in Kambhoji [Poothana Moksham by Aswati Tirunal) and Aariha varunnathivan in Madhyamavati (Kalyana Saugandlukam by Kottayam Tampuran) are a few random examples of pada-s in such raga-s that have captured the hearts of Kathakali lovers. The use of Sankarabharanam, Bhairavi, Pantuvarali, Mukhari, Saurashtram, Saranga, Begada, Mohanam, Saveri and Ahiri is widespread. Some raga-s are used with slight variations in name. For instance, Kambhoji is actually known as Kamodari and Yadukulakambhoji as Erikkila Kamodari. Interestingly enough, Dwijavanti is extensively used;Mariman kanni [Nalacharitam) is one of the best known pada-s in that raga. Navarasam is another commonly used raga; Paripahi {Duryodhana Vadham by Vayaskara Moossath) in this raga is exceptionally appealing. Other raga-s such as Puranira, Indisa, Kanakkurinji, Ghantaram and Indalam used in Kathakali are regarded by some to be peculiar to Kerala. However, their possible relationship to ancient Tamil pann-s such as Puraneermai, KKG Innisai, Kanakkurinji, etc., has been discussed by eminent scholars and musicologists.

Till recently the practice of Kathakali playwrights was to restrict themselves to a limited number of raga-s. Through his innovative play Karnasapatham, the late V. Madhavan Nair (Mali) introduced raga-s such as Hindolam and Reetigaula to Kathakali, thus breaking the fetters of custom, and offering more variety and better scope for expression of the myriad bhava-s and rasa-s that the lyrics encompass.

The tala-s in Kathakali also have their counterparts in Carnatic music, though minor variations are possible in practical application. Chempada Sis akin to Adi tala, Adanta to Khandajati Ata tala, Panchari to Roopakam, Muri Adanta to Misra rchapu and Champa to Misrajati gjhampa tala.

 What sets the music in Kathakali apart is basically the manner of presentation. The songs are interpreted on the stage by the actors and creation of the mood relevant to the context is a crucial part of this interpretation. The singers therefore maintain a slow tempo in consonance with the actor's delineation. A faster tempo is, of course, inevitable in certain situations such as battle sequences. It must be pointed out that the singer is on his feet from dusk to dawn, the duration of most Kathakali plays. He has, moreover, the onerous task of singing to the accompaniment of percussion instruments alone there are no stringed or wind instruments to support him. Though there is no raga alapana, niraval or kalpana swara-s, there is scope for improvisation, especially when lines are repeated many times. A well-trained singer capable of projecting the special features of Kathakali music effectively can communicate the intrinsic beauty of the art even to laypersons. The pada-s, laden as they are with poetic beauty and lilting music, are vehicles for the musician's artistry and ability and his role in the ensemble is a highly rewarding one.

More research on and documentation of raga-s in Kathakali and printing of standard notated versions of pada-s would be welcome. The older generation can vouch for the fact that Kathakali pada-s were commonly sung in Kerala homes and many were used by women for Tiruvathirakali, a group dance performed on special occasions. Till recently the songs were therefore woven into the fabric of the cultural life of Kerala. They are, without doubt, repositories of a high level of intellectual and aesthetic excellence.