The Dancing Feet In Kathakali

A Kathakali dancer performs a difficult job. He etches carefully the character he is portraying, reacting to varying events in a long drawn out play. At the same time, he mimes the surrounding scenery — forests, rivers, animals, even ethereal beings. His work is like that of a dedicated temple sculptor who chisels minute details and arresting ornamentation on a dull rock, transforming it into a thing of rare beauty. If a sculptor begins with a bare rock, the Kathakali. dancer performs on a bare stage. There are no props, no backdrops or special lights to aid him. He has, however, something better going for him: a well-trained body acting as a fine instrument of expression, its vibrant muscles invoking, like the caressing fingers of a violinist, a throbbing flow of moods and emotions.

Since vaachikabhinaya is limited to the rare grunts and shouts of the villain, the Kathakali dancer mimes each word of the padam, accentuating its meaning through body language and expressive footwork. A Bhima cannot shout and rant while killing Dussasana; his anger has to manifest itself in facial expressions, body movements and steps of nritta or pure dance. In the footwork, the Kathakali dancer, uniquely, brings his feet into contact with the floor boards in different ways, with varying force, to portray different types of personalities and moods. He stamps his feet firmly, or hammers them down, or chops or taps the floor with the lateral edge of his foot, or strokes it lightly with the tips of his toes.... to project assorted gunas and moods. The hero in a Kathakali play may be gentle, sublime or simple but he is courageous. Whatever his character, his steps are firm. Neither he — nor for that matter the heroine — is a pussyfooted weakling.

Thus, for example, in the unusual scene of Ravana outraging the modesty of Rambha in Rambhapravesafii, the damsel (portrayed by a male, of course) is in distress but yet she is strong enough to curse Ravana, the conqueror of gods. Her steps, too, are firm, very different from the soft gliding steps of a Mohiniattam dancer and her lasya style. Mostly the Kathakali dancer stamps his feet hard, sending tremors along the floor. He stamps hard to create an aura of a magnificent personality. He certainly needs strong boards for his stage. Man has three gunas; satvik, rajas and tamas. A person of satvaguna is gentle and disciplined and has his emotions, especially anger, in a tight rein. Benevolent kings like Dharmaputra, Nala, Rama and Rukmangada, as well as sages and brahmins, are supposed to have satvaguna. Even though white is the colour of this guna in Hindu culture, gentlemen heroes in Kathakali all have green faces called pucca.

Their steps are gentle, denoting their character. So are the steps of the white-bearded Hanuman, and those of the sages and brahmins who have plain rosy cheeks or sometimes have beards but no colourful headgear. Kathi, or red stripes across the green face and a ball stuck on the tip of the nose, shows a tough character, a person with rajoguna, valiant but too fond of worldly pleasures. Duryodhana, Narakasura and Ravana are such persons. Their steps are strong, but not much different from those of the puccafaced satvik, because they too have many of the qualities of a hero.

Even though they are larger than life, the characters of Kathakali dramas — the gods and demigods of Hindu mythology — do exhibit basic human emotions in reacting to different situations and changing events. Many of these plays begin with the hero trying to court the lady. He praises her charms in poetic language and there is a strong accent on sringara rasa. In such situations, even demons like Ravana and Narakasura savouring the sweet tenderness of love, become gentle. They forget their outsized egos while offering their hearts at the feet of their lovers and their thistledown. feet brush the ground just like a lover's touch. The dancer is softer still when he paints the gloomy picture of pathos.

There is one such memorable scene — perhaps the best of its kind — in Kirmeeravadham, a play based on the Mahabharata, which offers the dancer tremendous scope for revealing with deft footwork the deep sorrow of king Dharmaputra who is banned from his kingdom. Ramankutty Nair of Kerala Kalamandalam, who is deservedly famous for his portrayal of characters like Ravana and Narakasura, is also remembered for his touching characterisation of Dharmaputra in the padam Balekel.

For the grief-stricken king, his footwork was as soft as that of a child's. Nair recalls, almost with a shudder, the rigorous training he underwent under the late Pattikkanthodi Ravunny Menon, also of Kerala Kalamandalam and the fountainhead of modern Kathakali, to gain mastery in footwork. A step even marginally harsher than what it should have been would be checked with a heavy blow of the master's stick. Menon insisted that the bells on the anklets should remain mute even when the kalasam-s or the pure nritta sequences without mime were performed in this padam. Yet another scene brimming with pathos is the one where Kuchela, the poor hungry brahmin, goes 6 his friend Krishna to ask him for a favour. Kuchela's steps are silk-soft reflecting his reverence and selfless devotion for the Lord.

Kathakali dancers who portray such characters as Kuchela, are known sometimes to starve for a whole day to make sure that their steps are weak and soft. In scenes portraying love or pathos, the Kathakali dancer uses his feet in line with the body, directly below his shoulder blades, so that the movements are graceful and wellcontrolled. However, in scenes where anger is the predominent emotion, the feet are used differently. The red-faced villain usually raises his feet high and hammers down like the proverbial blacksmith. He expands the arc of his steps away from his body. He also uses the edge of his feet more frequently when stamping. There is an interesting instance in one play where the demoness Nakrathundi, in Kalakeyavadham, assumes a beautiful form to enchant Indra's son. Jayanta whom she loves. She uses soft steps when making amorous advances but, when these advances are thwarted, she regains her terrible form and reverts to fierce stamping of the feet. The footwork, as one can see from this instance, is so much a part of characterisation in Kathakali.

Again Bhima, a powerful character who normally has controlled steps as he is a gentleman prince, is terrifying in battle. When he meets Baka and Dussasana, his steps crack like thunder. In Kathakali there are steps not only for revealing basic emotions but also for the individual words in a padam. Each mudra or gesture representing a word has its own inherent mood. Words like lotus and love evoke pleasure and just as Siva and Sakti are inseparable as often quoted by Kalidasa, so also the word and its mood. The Kathakali dancer often conveys a word with the mudra and then impregnates it with the mood. He then intensifies the mood created by the use of changing footwork. Thus for tender words, he is soft on his feet and he stamps hard for words like 'kill'. But just words alone make hot a padam.

They are strung together like beads in a chain, thus bringing in subtle variations in footwork. A despairing hero who is normally light on his feet to convey the sense of anguish, sometimes stamps hard when he exclaims: 'I will kill my enemy'. Conversely, a hard-stepping villain is soft on his feet when he mimes the word 'love'. However, even these interpretations of words and moods are subject to the character portraying them. Hence Nala's interpretation of the word 'kill' is more restrained than that of the demon Trigartha who is a sidekick of Duryodhana. There is a reason for this. Unlike Nala. Trigartha is habitually harsh and, when he combines the sense of violence he is already conveying with words like 'kill', his steps become doubly fierce.

The pure dance or nritta sequences in Kathakali are perhaps the most delightful and exquisite form of expression. A dancer goes through a series of steps, or what is otherwise called a kalasam, after the pallavi, anupallavi and charanam of the padam. These steps do not convey any meaning but are used as flourishes. Sometimes, however, they do reflect the bhava or the mood and the use of words in such instances is redundant. One of the finest examples of this type of kalasam is seen in Kalakeyavadham, which is a dance-drama incorporating Mahabharata episodes. Arjuna. invited by his father Indra to the heavenly abode, breaks into an ashtakalasam — a series of eight kalasam-s or step-patterns done sequentially — as he wanders around awe-struck, enjoying a sense of deep happiness. Another play, Bakaavadham, has an even more interesting episode where kalasam-s are used with breathtaking effect.

Baka, the demon, terrorizes the people of Ekachakra and makes them promise to send him a cartload of food every day along with a cart driver whom also he would eat as part of his meal. When Bhima hears of this, he volunteers to go and destroy the demon. He reaches Baka's place at the appointed hour but, instead of offering the food to the demon, begins eating it himself. Hungry and angry, Baka explodes into a series of kalasam-s, stamping hard to punctuate harsh words. Bhima responds to these threats but remains seated and the kalasam-s he would do in such a sequence are taken on by Baka who elucidates both his own lines as well as Bhima's! A high degree of stylization marks all Kathakali plays. The dancer offers just the distilled essence of the mood without bringing in any element of lokadharmi, but within this framework, a dancer is allowed the liberty of adding his own personal touch to the lines he is interpreting through the medium of dance.

In this context, the late Kunchu Nair who was Principal of the Kerala Kalamandalam is remembered for the special steps he introduced. To portray a weak character, he raised one foot high ' and then stroked the ground lightly with his toes. The depiction of comic interludes (hasya) too allows for a wide variety of steps. Kalasam-s can be mixed and twisted in laughable ways to heighten the comic effect. Perhaps in no other dance form, either Indian or foreign, are the feet of the dancer used so systematically and well as in Kathakali to indicate the character of the person being portrayed and perhaps, too, it is not far from the truth to say that in Kathakali the dancing feet actually speak.