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Special Series: Indian Festival Costumes Issue 3, “Dedication to the Art”

Emma Hollows is a student from Manchester, England, going into her final year at the University of Cambridge. From August 7th to September 24th she is spending 7 weeks of her summer vacation in India exploring Gujarat and Kerala to investigate the costumes and make-up of Indian celebrations. During her trip, Emma is writing a blog series for Performing Arts Abroad as she participates in various festivals and attends Kerala Kalamandalam, a performing arts university teaching students the music, dances, costumes and make-up used in festivals.  This is the third issue of this special series…

Sorry for the delay in this next post, unreliable internet is definitely something you have to get used to in Kerala!

For the past 2 weeks that I have shadowed Veena to her Mohiniyattam classes at Kerala Kalamandalam and I have discovered just how dedicated you need to be to become a professional in this business. The students study for up to 10 years at KK with early morning starts from 7am for yoga (4:30am for Kathakali students for their full body oil massages in monsoon season), before a day of classes in their discipline, academic classes and more practice in the evenings. At uni we complain about having lectures at 9am, so these guys are champions for managing 4:30am every morning! But none of the students were complaining, they know what they want and they know that all of this practice is the way to achieve their futures. Next time I want to stay in bed instead of going to a 9am, I will think of Veena and her friends having been up since 5am and already done 2 hours of yoga!

Kerala’s performing arts are most famous for the costumes of Kathakali and Kutiyattam with their large colourful headdresses and brightly painted faces. Facial expression is vital because no words are spoken but the actors tell the story through dance. The distinct make up highlights these facial expressions and determine the characters: Paccha (hero) have a green face, while Kathi have green with a red and white pattern across their cheeks and nose, and Kari (demonesses) have black faces with red cheeks and chin. Tati are the bearded characters, such as Hanuman (the monkey god) who is Vellattati (white bearded). Most characters also have a chutti which is made from stiff white paper glued to the face with a rice paste to outline the face and highlight the expressions.

A full size Kathi mannequin in the costume museum at Kerala Kalamandalam.

A full size Kathi mannequin in the costume museum at Kerala Kalamandalam.

The costume students at KK are taught how to make and repair the entire repertoire of Kathakali and Kutiyattam costumes. It takes hours to prepare an actor for their performance with the make up alone taking up to 3 hours attracting audience members to watch in the green room. Kutiyattam costumes have many accessories: armlets, bracelets, a kutalharam (a wooden panel hanging from the waist) and a …………. which wraps around the shoulders and waist. In the past all of this was made from silver and adorned with precious gems which was incredibly heavy and expensive, therefore modern day accessories are made from a light weight wood known as kumizh, covered in gold foil and colourful plastic gems. Even so, the Kathakali and Kutiyattam costumes can weigh 10-12kg! The Kathakali students say this weight can cause back and neck pain but it is eased with the oil massages.

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The Kerala performing arts have their roots in the Sanskrit theatre written in about 200 BC in the Natyasastra. They have been developing ever since but the masters safe guarding the arts are attempting to limit any evolution to maintain the meaning and spirituality associated with almost all Indian performing arts. Therefore very few of the KK students have studied other styles to avoid ‘pollution’. On the 18th I will be attending a traditional Kathakali performance in Kalamandalam’s N…………… running from 8pm until dawn which will be the first time I actually see the students in full costume, I am so excited!!

Written by Emma Hollows

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