Kathakali: Kottayam Plays

By Pitkow, Marlene B. | Asian Theatre Journal, Fall 2004 | Go to article overview

Kathakali: Kottayam Plays


Pitkow, Marlene B., Asian Theatre Journal


KATHAKALI: KOTTAYAM PLAYS. International Video Edition (DVD). A Vedika Presentation. E-mail: . Web site: . Recording format: Beta. Complete set of four plays (9 DVDs): $400. Individual plays: $100 each. Plays: Baka Vadham (The killing of Baka); Kirmira Vadham (The killing of Kirmira); Kalyana Saugandhikam (The auspicious flower); Kalakeya Vadham (The killing of Kalakeya).

Vedika, a nonprofit group based in Thrissur, Kerala (southern India), which promotes Kerala's traditional arts through workshops, seminars, performances, publications, and video documentation, has released four major kathakali plays on a set of nine DVDs. While the domestic edition was released in January 2003, an international edition will be released in early 2004--of which a preliminary version is reviewed here. The plays were recorded before an invited audience in Thrissur, Kerala, in September 2002.

Perhaps the greatest single contribution of the international edition, unique thus far among the available video and film documentations of kathakali, is the inclusion of a scrolling narrative text and voice-over in English introducing each scene, as well as extensive English subtitles used during the actual performance. These valuable additions enable English-speaking viewers of kathakali as well as students and scholars to deepen their understanding and appreciation of how such a highly performative genre expresses the poetic conceits and literary references that are rife in the form. I applaud these unobtrusive captions that can only serve to further our understanding of such a rich and complex performance genre.

Vedika has wisely chosen to document what are arguably the four most important plays in the entire kathakali repertoire: The Killing of Baka, The Killing of Kirmira, The Flower of Good Fortune, and The Killing of Kalakeya. These plays were composed sometime in the late seventeenth century by the famous Kerala king and man of arts and letters Kottayam Thampuran, and they remain the backbone of kathakali training and performance to this day. With the use of subtitles, English-speaking viewers can finally appreciate Thampuran's highly poetic and literary writing.

The Kerala scholars behind Vedika, led by Mundoli V. Narayanan (professor of literature at Miyazaki International College, Japan), have also produced an extensive booklet that accompanies the international edition. The booklet is multi-purposed, but one of its primary intents is to introduce the reader to the playwright who was the first great kathakali reformer in the early days of its development.

Kottayam Thampuran hailed from a royal family and served as king of a northern Kerala principality. From early on, Thampuran was exposed to literature and the arts. He made many important contributions to kathakali, introducing for the first time episodes from the Mahabharata. Until this point, all the plays were drawn from the Ramayana and revolved around the deeds of the gods. These earlier plays centered on single character displays and were very one-dimensional. Narayanan suggests that they were no more than "a costume dance accompanied by music" (pp. 7-8). Thampuran added a depth and emotional complexity to his characters that was not there before and turned kathakali into a total theatre that blended all the elements of acting, dance, vocal music, and instrumental music. In Thampuran's masterful hands, the epic characters evolved throughout the story rather than appearing as unchanging constants as they had prior to his work. Thampuran was also instrumental in giving his female characters a multidimensionality of moods and states of minds. His plays offered new challenges to the actor in terms of further codifying facial expressions and expanding the musical and rhythmic possibilities and the emotional states that could be expressed.

The booklet also provides a general timeline of kathakali's early evolution from ramanattom, and contains a primer on kathakali with an illustrated list of the mudras (hand gestures) and their various meanings and a glossary of terms.

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