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Photo Essay

Kerala Kalamandalam’s first female Kathakali pupils step into male bastion

Print edition : Aug 04, 2022 T+T-

Kerala Kalamandalam’s first female Kathakali pupils step into male bastion

Krishnapriya, one among the first batch of female students of Kathakali at Kerala Kalamandalam, is practising ‘Thodayam- Purappadu’, the introductory act, along with male classmates at the Thekkan Kalari.

Krishnapriya, one among the first batch of female students of Kathakali at Kerala Kalamandalam, is practising ‘Thodayam- Purappadu’, the introductory act, along with male classmates at the Thekkan Kalari. | Photo Credit: THULASI KAKKAT

With their entry, it’s curtains for a 90-year-old, male-only tradition at the Kalamandalam.

It’s 5 a.m. and at Kerala Kalamandalam, Arya, Akshaya, Durgha and Swetha are making history. The four belong to the first batch of female students to learn the dance theatre form of Kathakali, traditionally a bastion of male dominance, at Kalamandalam. The girls, in their early teens, are practising mudras as part of their sadhakam under Kalamandalam N. Mukundan asan at the iconic institution in central Kerala’s Vallathol Nagar. 

The female students are learning the mudras or the hand gestures during their early morning Sadhakam session which starts at 5 am with their teacher, Kalmandalam Mukundan Asan.
The female students are learning the mudras or the hand gestures during their early morning Sadhakam session which starts at 5 am with their teacher, Kalmandalam Mukundan Asan. | Photo Credit: THULASI KAKKAT

Kathakali has held its position as male stronghold for so long mainly because the art form came into being when women enjoyed little or no freedom in Kerala society. It was performed, promoted, patronised, and popularised by men, and it was male artists who played female roles, with the legendary Kottakkal Sivaraman just one of many performers known for their convincing portrayal of the nayika

Arya and Akshaya are practising the Kannusadhakam (eye exercises) and the Navarasas (nine emotions). Emoting with the eyes forms an integral part of the Kathakali performance. 
Arya and Akshaya are practising the Kannusadhakam (eye exercises) and the Navarasas (nine emotions). Emoting with the eyes forms an integral part of the Kathakali performance.  | Photo Credit: THULASI KAKKAT

The dance form’s reputation and orthodoxy was entrenched with the founding of Kalamandalam in 1930 by poet and Kathakali connoisseur Vallathol Narayana Menon under the patronage of Kunjunni Raja, who not only gave his palace in Kunnamkulam but also the palace’s resident troupe of Kathakali dancers and teachers to the new institution. In 1936, Kalamandalam moved to its present picturesque campus on the banks of the river Bharathapuzha in Thrissur. It has since played a stellar role in preserving and promoting Kerala’s traditional arts, especially Kathakali, considered the most dramatic but also the most difficult dance form in India, and has produced world-renowned artists such as Kalamandalam Gopi and Kalamandalam Krishnan Nair, lauded as the greatest in the 400-year-old history of Kathakali. 

Arya and Akshaya are practising the Kannusadhakam (eye exercises) and the Navarasas (nine emotions). Emoting with the eyes forms an integral part of the Kathakali performance. 
Arya and Akshaya are practising the Kannusadhakam (eye exercises) and the Navarasas (nine emotions). Emoting with the eyes forms an integral part of the Kathakali performance.  | Photo Credit: THULASI KAKKAT
Male students undergo the rigorous ‘chavittiuzhichil’ or foot massage, often cited as the reason to keep women out of the practice of Kathakali.
Male students undergo the rigorous ‘ chavittiuzhichil’ or foot massage, often cited as the reason to keep women out of the practice of Kathakali. | Photo Credit: THULASI KAKKAT

Over these 90-odd years, however, Kalamandalam’s Kathakali school was not open to females. One oft-repeated reason given for this was the practice of the rigorous exercise called Chavittiyuzhiyal, where the student’s body is put through a high-pressure massage from masseurs who use their feet. The practice is said to mould the body into the desired degree of flexibility. Women’s bodies and internal organs could not be subjected to that degree of pressure. In the modern era, however, the need for Chavittiyuzhiyal even for male dancers has been questioned by some critics. 

A bunch of students in front of the Koothambalam, the formal theatre space. While conservative segments of the Kathakali fraternity have opposed the entry of women, saying it goes against the dance form’s heart and soul, a large section of dancers and audiences have said the dance should sync with the changing times.
A bunch of students in front of the Koothambalam, the formal theatre space. While conservative segments of the Kathakali fraternity have opposed the entry of women, saying it goes against the dance form’s heart and soul, a large section of dancers and audiences have said the dance should sync with the changing times. | Photo Credit: THULASI KAKKAT
Kalamandalam Gopi, one of the most famous Kathakali artists alive today, emerged from the traditional male stronghold of the dance form but has been vocal in supporting the entry of women. 
Kalamandalam Gopi, one of the most famous Kathakali artists alive today, emerged from the traditional male stronghold of the dance form but has been vocal in supporting the entry of women.  | Photo Credit: THULASI KAKKAT

According to art historians, it is not just this massage, or Kathakali’s traditional patronage by feudal lords and upper-caste men, but also Kerala society’s strong patriarchal foundations that made women’s presence taboo in the dance form. Over the years, however, there have been growing demands from artists, critics, and connoisseurs alike to change the rules in line with the times. Stalwarts such as Gopi asan vocally supported teaching Kathakali to women. Experts pointed out that when women practise demanding art forms such as Koodiyattam, the oldest extant Sanskrit theatre format, it made no sense to keep them out of Kathakali, especially at Kalamandalam. 

Students learning the various mudras or hand gestures and postures. The sadhakam or practice starts at 5 am with their teacher, Kalmandalam Mukundan Asan. 
Students learning the various mudras or hand gestures and postures. The sadhakam or practice starts at 5 am with their teacher, Kalmandalam Mukundan Asan.  | Photo Credit: THULASI KAKKAT

There was stiff resistance from purists, who insisted that the art form’s soul and substance would be compromised by the entry of women. But the barriers slowly began to fall, and women first began to learn Kathakali in schools outside Kalamandalam. The Tripunithura Vanitha Kathakali Kendram Ladies Troupe has been teaching women since its inception in 1975, but except for the charming exception of Chavara Parukutty, not many women artists have been able to break into the mainstream. 

Arya, Akshaya, Sweta and Durgha at the ‘Thodayam Purapadu’ session with Kalamandalam Mukundan. Most of these women students come from non­Kathakali backgrounds and have no baggage. 
Arya, Akshaya, Sweta and Durgha at the ‘Thodayam Purapadu’ session with Kalamandalam Mukundan. Most of these women students come from non­Kathakali backgrounds and have no baggage.  | Photo Credit: THULASI KAKKAT

Finally, thanks to insistent demands, the Kalamandalam administration last year allowed girls into Kathakali in Class 8. As luck would have it, the pandemic struck. Those first students were unable to attend classes in the hallowed Kalamandalam premises. Now, as institutions have begun to open up cautiously, Kalamandalam too has begun classes. Five of those girls are in class 9 now, and they are learning Kathakali along with their male counterparts. One more gender barrier has fallen.  

Students wait for their session to start. Kalamandalam was set up over 90 years ago to promote Kerala’s traditional art forms, with Kathakali occupying a place of pride. 
Students wait for their session to start. Kalamandalam was set up over 90 years ago to promote Kerala’s traditional art forms, with Kathakali occupying a place of pride.  | Photo Credit: THULASI KAKKAT

In the past nine decades, Kalamandalam has gone through several transformations, with Kathakali itself seeing radical shifts in form, content, infrastructure, and performance culture. Many of these changes too met with opposition from the traditionalists, just as the entry of women does now. For instance, some of them criticise the fact that boys who undergo Chavittiyuzhiyal get the same certificate as girls who do not necessarily take the massage. 

Arya, Akshaya, Swetha and Durgha girl Kathakali students of Kerala Kalamandalam during the ‘Thodayam Purapadu’ session with Kalamandalam Mukundan.
Arya, Akshaya, Swetha and Durgha girl Kathakali students of Kerala Kalamandalam during the ‘Thodayam Purapadu’ session with Kalamandalam Mukundan. | Photo Credit: THULASI KAKKAT

The debate over gender sensitivity in art doesn’t bother Arya, Akshaya, Durgha, Swetha or their friends at Kalamandalam. Interestingly, most of them come from households with no particular links to Kathakali. And no baggage. “We saw the advertisement and applied,” they told Frontline. As Durgha said, “I’m doing this because I am in love with Kathakali, just that.”

Devananda, Krishnapriya and Vaishnavi at the Thekkan Kalari along with male dancers. Physical classes resumed recently after the shutdowns mandated by Covid­-19. 
Devananda, Krishnapriya and Vaishnavi at the Thekkan Kalari along with male dancers. Physical classes resumed recently after the shutdowns mandated by Covid­-19.  | Photo Credit: THULASI KAKKAT