Monday, January 16, 2017

The Feminine Mystique

The all-woman Vanitha Kathakali Sangham have been performing the art form for four decades now
By Shevlin Sebastian
In a hall, of the Idoop Palace, at Tripunithura, a suburb of Kochi, Kathakali dancer Parvathi Menon is playing Duryodhana. Next to her is the youngster, Aarcha Gowri Varma. She is playing Duryodhana’s wife Bhanumathi. It is a Sunday morning in November. The sunlight is streaming in through one of the windows. Because it is a rehearsal, Parvathi wears a yellow saree, while Aarcha is in a green salwar kameez.
Behind them are the singers Kumari Varma and Pramila Vijayan who are reciting the 'Karnashaptham' – The story of the Pandavas and Kauravas.
All of them belong to the Vanitha Kathakali Sangham, perhaps, the only all-woman Kathakali troupe in Kerala. There are about 15 members, from Aarcha, a post-graduate student, home-maker Kumari Varma and bank manager Radhika Varma.
In fact, it was Radhika's father, KT Rama Varma, a Kathakali aficionado, who got this idea of an all-women troupe. Today, the group is celebrating 40 years of their existence.
They perform stories from the Mahabaratha and Ramayana. While earlier, it would be an all-night performance, today, it is confined to three hours. “People are so busy these days,” says Parvathi.
Even Parvathi is busy, looking after her two children and mother, as well the household, because her husband works in Bahrain. “But I try to go for rehearsals three to four times a week,” she says.
Parvathi usually plays male characters like Duryodhana and Ravana. “They can be fiery and villainous,” she says. “And there is a power and dynamism in male roles.”
Thus far, the group has done 1300 performances all over Kerala, and in many places in India, apart from cities in the USA and West Asia.

Interestingly, troupe member Dr. Haripriya Nambudiri says that there is no dip in popularity during these fast-paced times. “In fact, Kathakali is popular among youngsters,” she says. “Many of them learn the art form at various art centres in Kerala.”
Of course, the most interesting part of the dance form is the elaborate costumes and make-up. “The make-up takes about five hours,” says Radhika. “It is a combination of natural stones and powder, mixed with coconut oil.” As for the distinctive white colour, from the chin to the cheek, it is made of lime and rice flour.
And since it takes so long, the dancers have found a unique way to pass the time: they go to sleep for three hours. “But as the make-up becomes elaborate, it is then that we slowly begin to seep into the character that we are playing,” says Radhika. And it is clear that, despite all the difficulties, they dearly love the art form. “This is a passion for us,” says the fifty-year-old Parvathi. “So, we will do this, health permitting, till the end of our lives.” 

(Sunday Magazine, The New Indian Express, South India and Delhi) 

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