Women In Kathakali Now An Accepted Innovation

Nala leads his bride Damayanti to his beautiful garden. After much coaxing, Damayanti coyly expresses her love for Nala with subtle movements of her eyes, face and body. But, offstage, 'Damayanti' is smoking a beedi. What! What! No mystery this, really, for it was a man who is portraying Damayanti.

This was about three decades ago at the Kerala Kalamandalam, where traditional Kerala classical art-form of Kathakali was resuscitated, nourished and put on the road to glory.

 As far as anyone can remember Kathakali has essentially been male-dominated, with even the female roles enacted by men. One of the reasons cited for this is the rigorous training needed and the all-night performance schedule which was in vogue.

There were instances in the past of women performing Kathakali but they portrayed only the female characters. Among those who won plaudits playing such roles are Kottakal Sunithi Raja and Chelannatu Subhadra. Chavara Parukutty Amma is the only woman to have taken up Kathakali as a profession.

A new Kathakali institution called Natana Niketan was founded in Trichur in 1960. Its troupe consisted of a few women who performed both male and female roles. The artists travelled extensively but the institution was disbanded in 1968.

A quarter of a century ago, a few enthusiastic girls took to learning and performing Kathakali, despite the orthodoxy and conservatism surrounding it. They did so initially to participate in the youth festivals. Their sterling performances won them many accolades. This motivated the formation of the Tripunithura Kathakali Kendram's Vanitha Troupe in 1975, perhaps the only major initiative aimed at women's entry into the male-dominated world of Kathakali. Tripunithura, seat of the erstwhile royal family, is a vibrant cultural town. The formation of the troupe was spearheaded by K.T. Rama Varma and Haridasan Thampuran brothers and members of the Kochi royal family with encouragement from Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, the doyen of Kathakali. Furthermor nder the guidance of Sathi Varma, sister-in-law of Varma and Thampuran, who was also the manager of the troupe as well as joint secretary of Tripunithura Kathakali Kendra, any apprehension the parents felt about the propriety of girls performing in front of the public, was dispelled.

The year 1975 was observed as the International Year of Women and this spurred women all over the world to surge ahead and excel their male counterparts in many different fields, including culture. It was only befitting that the ladies of the Vanitha troupe of Tripunithura should make their debut that year with a performance of Kalyana Saugandhikam at the Kathakali Kendram. The performance was unique with women enacting all the roles, as well as singing and playing the chenda (drum). Participating in the event were: Vrinda Varma (Dharmaputra), Sailaja Varma (Bheema I), Radhika Varma (Bheema II), Meera (Panchali), Sreemati Aatayanam (Hanuman), the Sadanan Sisters Nalini and Padmini (vocals) and Navaranga Vijayamani (chenda). It was a successful attempt and the members never looked back. By the end of that year many more women joined them and they began presenting five stories Kuchela Vritam, Kalyana Saugandhikam, Duryodhana Vadham, Nala Charitam and Subhadraharanam. At first, the performances lasted three to four hours. Later, by the nineteen eighties, the troupe could perform all night. The initially skeptical Kathakali enthusiasts had to drop their long-held prejudice and accept the innovation for what it was  a very successful one The fact that the Vanitha troupe has been invited to Bangalore, Chennai and Hyderabad and other cities outside Kerala further testifies to this fact. They performed in Pondicherry under the auspices of the South Zone Cultural Centre in 1987. In 1988 they performed in Kulu, Himachal Pradesh, as part of an inter-State cultural exchange programme.

 In the event, the play-acting ladies of Tripunithura have became an inseparable part of the temple festivals in Kerala and give, during peak season, as many as 50 Kathakali performances. They have also performed several times for Doordarshan. Radhika Varma, who is still an integral part of the troupe, is the recipient of the Express Krishnan Award. She shared the stage with M. Balamuralikrishna who also received the award that year.

It is indeed praiseworthy, as well as noteworthy, that the Vanitha troupe has not only survived for the last 25 years but has also built up a fine reputation with its dedicated and excellent performances.

 It is also noteworthy that it took Kalamandalam almost 25 years to recognise the efforts of the allladies company of Kathakali performers. The recognition came in 1999 when the troupe was invited by it to stage Duryodhana Vadham. In this episode, an enraged Bheema pulls down the villain Dussasana who had publicly humiliated his wife Panchali. Roaring with fury, he tears open Dussasana's belly, drinks his blood and garlands himself with the bloody entrails. His roar reverberates with pride and fulfillment.

In this performance, Bheema was seen wearing rings and Dussasana a gold bangle only giveaways of the gender of the performers. Their strong performance got them the long- have proved beyond doubt that awaited nod of approval from Prof, women can perform Kathakali O.N.V. Kurup, Kalamandalam's well. Yes we have to recognise chairman, who remarked: "They them."

The women of Vanitha troupe received training from their respective guru-s: Kalamandalam Raja, Kalamandalam Karunakaran, Vasudevan Namboothiri, FACT Padmanabha n and RLV Damodaran Pisharody. They were trained exactly the same way men are, though they did not have to do the chavittu (oil massage to make the body supple) because, as women, they were naturally endowed with grace and suppleness. They have displayed the stamina required by the exacting routine of Kathakali training and performance. They have successfully donned all the different roles and met all the requirements of Kathakali performance.

Remarkably, none of these ladies has taken up Kathakali as a profession. They have other roles as housewives, teachers, office workers, etc. Kathakali is their passion, their calling. Despite the physical limitation and family responsibilities, every time there is an invitation to perform, they show no hesitation. They all have the support and encouragement of their husbands  and families.

The troupe now consists of dancers Radhika Varma (Bangalore), Geetha Varma, Radhika  Ajayan, Prameela Vijayan, Geeta, Preetha Ranjini Suresh and Sushama. Geetha Varma, Kumari Varma, Sailaja Varma and Arya Devi are the vocalists.