FEATURES: Crossing the Ancient Stage

Kathakali and Greek Drama

Catherine Freis
Millsaps College
Jackson, Mississippi 39210
E-mail: freiscr@okra.millsaps.edu

In our search to understand Greek drama we have often turned to ritual dramas in other cultures, particularly Asian cultures: Balinese, Chinese, Japanese and Indian.

Slide 1: Full Cast: Kathakali Performance

These stylized dance-dramas can provide us with living examples of the actual practices and the powerful effects of conventional theater. We have even seen thrilling performances of Greek Tragedy, such as Les Atrides, directed by Mnouckine for the Theatre du Soleil, which were directly influenced by Asian Drama.

Slide 2: Chorus: Les Atrides (Agamemnon)

Today I would like to focus on one such conventional theatre form, Kathikali dance-drama, as an entering wedge for understanding the larger questions of gender representations in Indian and Greek drama.

Slide 3: Kathakali Love Scene

Kathakali (literally 'storyplay') developed in the 17th century among the warrior and priestly castes of the state of Kerala, formerly known as the Malabar Coast.(1)

Slide 4: Kerala Landscape

Kathakali combines elements from martial arts training, classical Sanskrit drama, and folk ritual drama.(2)

Kathakali is influenced by Kalarippayatt, the ancient martial art of Kerala.(3) It was an important feature of the life and culture of the Nairs, the military caste in Kerala, particularly during the 12-17th centuries. Indeed, its famous practitioners, both male and female, were celebrated in folk songs which are still sung today. Children, starting at the age of seven, began Kalarippayat as part of their caste heritage. The training for boys would be continued until they became practicing warriors who protected their communities and their masters. The most advanced stage is weaponry; the flexibility and control of the body is by then is so well practiced that the entire body can be hidden behind a shield of 12-18 inches

Slide 5: Kallarippayatt: Sideways Leap


Slide 6: Kallarippayatt: Body Behind Shield

The first actors of Kathakali were Kalarippayatt-trained Nair warriors whose drama is based on Indian epic. It is therefore not surprising that many of the exercises, body positions and battle sequences from Kalarippayatt are evident in Kathakali.

Slide 7: Kathakali Training: Arched Back


Slide 8: Kathakali Training: Flexed legs and arms

Nor is it surprising that warriors and dancing are connected. One has only to remember American Indian war dance traditions, or the martial arts training and performing that is an integral part of Chinese Opera.

But Kalarippyat is not the only influence on Kathakali. Kathakali also draws upon classical and medieval Sanskrit drama. This dependence can be seen in the facial and hand gestures

Slide 9: Kathakali Actor: Face and Hands (4)

as well as the representation of its heroines.

Slide 10: Kathakali Female Heroine

The representation of women in Kathakali conforms to the strictures of the Natyastrata ('Drama Science') of Bharata, the earliest and the most comprehensive traditional text about Indian drama. This encyclopedic work, dated during the period from 200 BCE. to 200 CE, codified the rules for classical Sanskrit drama and continued to be important for all subsequent forms of Indian theatre.

According to the Natyastrata, three different relationships are permitted between the actors and the roles they represent.(5) First, men, women and children can take roles in accord with their age and sex, as when an old man plays an old man. Second, actors can take roles contrary to their natural age, as when children enact the roles of old men or old men the roles of children. Third, and more rarely, actors can take roles contrary to their sex, as when men or women enact roles of the opposite sex. The Natyastrata not only allowed assumption of women's roles by men and men's roles by women, but there were actually all-female troupes performing Sanskrit drama.(6) Clearly, the stylization of Sanskrit drama focused on the qualities of mimesis through gestures rather than the gender or age of the actor. The same fluidity may be found in contemporary Indian drama practices where troupes consisting only of males, or females, or boys exist.

Slide 11: Ras Lila: Boy Troupe


Slide 12: Mohini Attam: Female Troupe (7)

The Natyastrata does, however, state it will be more effective if women are represented by women because of their delicacy (sukumara). This gender representation is essentialist: the Natyastrata adds that even female performers should undergo special training to enhance this essential quality in their dramatic representation (8)!

Women were performers not only in classical Sanskrit dramas but also in its succeeding forms, particularly those associated with temples (9). These temple dance-dramas seek to make the divine visible and are offered as 'visible sacrifices' to the gods. Diana Eck has demonstrated how important 'seeing' divinity and being seen by the divinity is to Hindu worship (10). In temple drama, the fluidity, softness and grace of the female together with the strength and virility of the male produce for the beholder a living iconography of divinity as understood in its dual gender aspect. You may see the same impulse in temple iconography as these slides illustrate:

Slide 13: Male and Female Worshippers: 2-4th Century C.E. (Karle)


Slide 14: Shiva and Paravati: 12th century C.E. (Orissa)

Nonetheless, until recently, men were the only performers of Kathakali. In part, we may explain this because of the mores of medieval India: in medieval India, women could only perform inside the temple sanctuary. They were, therefore, barred from participating in Kathakali performances which were traditionally staged outdoors.

Slide 15: Outdoor Kathakali Performance Area

In Kathakali, despite the use of an all-male cast, costuming, make-up and dance styles for male and female roles still highlight the ideal pairing of masculine vigor and feminine grace. For every male role (except brahmins and sages) elaborate paste masks and make-up are painstakingly constructed on the face before each performance. Like Greek masks, Kathakali make-up is conventional: the audience knows that this character, a type called green

Slide 16: Kathakali Green Make-up and Costume

is good and noble because of his green make-up and headdress, just as it knows that this character, a type called Black Beard, is evil, because of the black beard and costume.

Slide 17: Kathakali Black Beard Make-up and Costume

In addition to the make-up and richly worked headdresses, wide, bell shaped skirts complete the transformation of the actor of the male roles. In contrast, the make-up and costuming for heroines is simple, with only hip and breast padding added to imitate an ideal, full-figured female body.

Slide 18: Kathakali Radiant Female Make-up and Costume

This traditional essentialist contrast of masculinity and femininity is further underlined by the fact that all the characters in Kathakali are composed of 'types'. There are as many as eight basic make-up types, some of which even have specific musical ragas assigned to them (11). The so called 'radiant' type is reserved for characters who are gentle and spiritual: brahmins, sages and female heroines. This type reflects the practices of classical Sanskrit drama, which did not use masks or a great deal of make-up. All other male roles have, in contrast, elaborate make-up and, in a few cases, retain the masks which were the predecessors of the makeup.

Slide 19: Kathakali Masks

These male roles, in their use of make-up and masks, follow the practices of folk ritual drama.

The representation of demonic femininity (akin to the Furies) and femininity which departs from an essentialist norm also derives from folk ritual drama (12). These dramas use masks, facial make-up and extremely elaborate costuming to depict cosmic battles between good and evil. Performed by males, they are trance-dances in which the performer is possessed and is understood to become a deity whom the community may address in prayer. Kali is a frequent figure in these dramas and represents the force of order over chaos as a slayer of demons, although she herself is a figure who can threaten stability by her blood-frenzy

Slide 20: Kali (Teyyam)

She is often represented with visible breasts, as here in Teyyam

Slide 21: Kali (Teyyam)

and in Bhagavati ritual dramas.

Slide 22: Kali (Bhagavati)

When brought into Kathakali such costuming signals dangerous femininity. In roles called Kari (Black), performers wear exposed false breasts, use exaggerated satirical gestures, and may carry branches of trees, a symbol of their primitive and lawless nature.

Slide 23: Kathakali Kari Performer

Often, however, such demons first present themselves disguised as beautiful women (lalitas) who transform into karis.

It is interesting to note that a contemporary all-female troupe currently performing Kathakali, the Tripunithura Kathakali Kendram Ladies Troupe, has been discouraged by temple committees and teachers from performing such roles because their eroticism makes them inappropriate for female performers (13).

What analogies can we make between Greek drama and Kathakali? Because of the brief time remaining, I will limit myself to offering four analogies rather than a comprehensive comparison.

1) Kathakali's conjunction of martial arts training and drama may provide some support for Winkler's hypothesis that the tragic chorus consisted of ephebes (14). Part of Winkler's hypothesis rests on his interpretation of evidence from vases. The Pronomos Vase,

Slide 24: Pronomos Vase

represents the chorus of a satyr play as unbearded young adult males--'iconographically speaking, ephebes,' (15) says Winkler--as opposed to the three bearded male actors. Other vases also depict the chorus as unbearded, as does this one (16),

Slide 25: Six Choristers

which, among other evidence, illustrates, says Winkler, the distinctive rank and file dance style for the tragic chorus. For Winkler, then, tragic dancing represents an aesthetic version of close order drill. Winkler quotes a fragment of Chamaeleon, who was probably writing in the fourth century B.C., to provide support for this view (17). 'For choral dancing,' says Chamaeleon,' was practically a manoeuvre in arms (exhoplisia) and a display not only of precision marching (eutaxia) in general but more particularly of physical preparedness,' (18).

Winkler also notes that there is evidence of marital arts exercises for male adolescents in Athens: gymnopaidike, a gentle dance exercise which imitated wrestling and pankration, (perhaps like Tai Chi), and the pyrrhikhe, a fast warlike dance danced by older boys wearing partial armor (19). The sequence of training does recall the Kalarippyat training and suggests that for Greeks, too, martial arts and dance-drama may be related, even if we are unable to accept, without fuller evidence, that the tragic chorus was ephebic.

2) Froma Zeitlin (20) suggests that in Greek tragedy 'playing the other' allows the Greek polis to incorporate into its life the qualities of the feminine, as it reflects on the highly charged and powerful female roles. This is not generally a potential effect of Kathakali. The female heroines are predictable types, like the female characters seen in New Comedy, a genre that has much in common with classical Sanskrit drama and which, it has been suggested, may have been influenced by New Comedy because of Alexander (21). The heroines in Kathakali do not invert the normal order, reflect upon their status, or indulge in elaborate deceptions. Nor do the female roles have the prominence that we see in Greek tragedy. Synnove des Bouvrie has suggested that for Greek tragedy, this prominence is due to women's central importance in the crucial institution of the oikos (22). In contrast, the plots in Kathakali are all male dominated and do not highlight, as Zeitlin says of the Greek theatre, 'the feminine for the purposes of imagining a fuller model for the masculine self,' (23).

3) However, some female roles in Kathakali are analogous to female roles in Greek tragedy and help us to grasp the meaning of these roles in their similarity and difference. Let me focus briefly on one such correspondence.

I have already noted that Kali is a frequent figure in ritual folk drama performances. These dramas typically begin at night and end at daybreak the following morning. Dramas which feature Kali end with her murder of the demon Darika.

Slide 26: Kali with Sword (Mudiyettu)

There are graphic displays of Kali disemboweling him, drinking his blood, and ultimately adorning herself with his intestines and gore.

Traditionally, Kathakali performances also extend all night long and conclude with final episodes which are analogous to Kali's grim and dangerous restoration of order. For instance, at the end of one Kathakali drama derived from the Mahabharata, Bhima, the noble warrior, disembowels Dussasana, his sworn enemy, while Draupadi drenches her hair with his blood (24). In this way, Draupadi, the wife of the five Pandavas, is avenged; Dussasana had dishonored her by dragging her by the hair into the assembly hall and attempting to undress her in public. Although Kathakali stresses Bhima's role and does not allow Draupadi to go too far beyond the 'heroine' role, nevertheless, the episode echoes those from ritual folk drama. This echo deepens and helps legitimize Draupadi's behavior.

Clytemnestra and her blood-bedewed dance at the death of Agamemnon as well as her mutilation of his corpse seem to represent the same archetype as Kali and Draupadi. All three are women who are avengers and ambiguously restorers and destroyers of order who are associated with primitive female forces. Let me go further: the exposed breast of Kari roles also resonates with Clytemnestra's exposing of her breast to her son Orestes in the Choephori.

Slide 27: Death of Clytemnestra: Malibu. J. Paul Getty Museum 80

One member of this panel, Mary de Forest (25), has explained how this action not only represents the maternal bond, but also the inversion of the maternal bond. Clytemnestra attempts to mesmerize her son--as Karis do to their foes in Kathakali

Slide 28: Kathakali: Kari and Bhiru

- using her breast as an 'evil eye' and would perhaps have succeeded except for the intervention of Pylades.

4) The development of great art forms, like Kathakali and Greek tragedy, usually involve the merging of a number of traditions. We are fortunate that all the originating forms of Kathakali are still extant, so that we can delineate with some clarity the different strands. We of course cannot clearly do so in Greek tragedy. Thus, to return to the prior example, we can only speculate whether such characters as Clytemnestra reflect earlier forms of ritual theatre, perhaps even divinities of order and disorder. And yet, comparisons with other cultures' dance-dramas can, I believe, help us to reconsider what such strands might be and how the strands might come together.

Today's discussion is merely a prolegomenon to ways in which a more thorough study of the 2,000 years of Indian drama can illumine Greek drama for us. I look forward to the fruits of such comparative study.


(1) For general treatments of Kathakali, see Phillip B. Zarrilli, The Kathakali Complex: Actor, Performance, Structure (New Delhi, 1984); Betty True Jones, 'Kathakali Dance-Drama: An Historical Perspective,' Performing Arts in India: Essays on Music, Dance, and Drama, ed. Bonnie C. Wade (Berkeley, 1983), 14- 44; Clifford R. Jones and Betty True Jones, Kathakali: An Introduction to the Dance-Drama of Kerala (New York, 1970); Eugenio Barba, 'The Kathakali Theatre,' The Drama Review, 11:4 (1967) 37-50.

(2) Zarilli 1984, 39-63, gives a full treatment of the origins of Kathakali and the relationships between Kathakali and other forms of Keralan dance-dramas.

(3) The relationship between Karlarippayatt and Kathakali has been explored by Phillip B. Zarrilli in a number of articles. See, for instance, 'Kalarippayatt, Martial Art of Kerala,' The Drama Review 23:2 (1983) 113-124; 'Kalarippayatt: The Sword and Shield Combat of Ancient India,' Black Belt, 20:8 (August, 1982) 40-43, 90, 92, 94, 96. See also Zarrilli 1984, 52-55, 74-75, 99-100 and Mrinalini Sarabhai, 'Kathakali', 129-30 in Performing Arts of Kerala, edited by Mallika Sarabhai (Middletown 1994).

(4) The use of facial and hand gestures (mudras) are an integral feature of Sanskrit theatre in its classical as well as its medieval forms. The medieval dramas, Krisnanattam and Kutiyattam, are still performed. For a discussion of Krisnanattam, see Darius L. Swann, 'Introduction to the Devotional Traditions, 171-2 in Indian Theatre, edited by Farley P. Richmond, Darius L. Swann, and Phillip B. Zarrilli, (Hawaii 1990) and A.C.G. Raja, 'Krishnanattam', 114-127 in Performing Arts of Kerala 1994. For Kutiyattam, see Farley P. Richmond, 'Kutiyattam', 87-117 in Indian Theatre 1990.

(5) Bharata, Natyasastra, translated and edited by Manomohan Ghosh, (Calcutta 1961), XXVI 1-5.

(6) Farley P. Richmond, 'Characteristics of Sanskrit Theatre and Drama', 37 in Indian Theatre 1990.

(7) Boy actors are performers in Ras Lila, a devotional drama; women are performers in Ram Lila, Mohini Attam, and Bharata Natyam.

(8) Bharata, XXVI 6-13a.

(9) Bharata Natyam and its related form, Mohini Attam, were originally temple dances traditionally performed by women. These dances use gestures as well as dance movement to interpret devotional songs. Both forms are now commonly performed in varied settings. Kutiyattam, a Sanskrit drama form which dates from the tenth century CE, is traditionally performed in the inner sanctum of the temple. Bruce M. Sullivan, 'Tapati-Samvavana, a Kutyiattam Drama by Kulasekra Varman,' Asian Theatre Journal (Spring 1996) 26, does note that Kutiyattam dramas are now being presented outside temples. However, when they are performed inside the temple, only Hindus are allowed to attend. Women of the Nangyar caste perform as musicians, actors and reciters in Kutyiattam dramas. For a full treatment of the female performers in Kutyiattam, see Diane Daugherty, 'The Nangyar: Female Ritual Specialist of Kerala,' Asian Theatre Journal (Spring 1996), 54-67. Kutyiattam is an important predecessor of Kathakali and is considered the oldest extant drama form in the world.

(10) Dar_an: Seeing the Divine Image in India (Chambersburg, Anima Press, 1985).

(11) The basic types are fluid, according to the time period and the performing practices of a specific troupe. Zarilli (1984) specifies eight types: Green (noble), Radiant (spiritual men and female heroines), Knife (arrogant), White beard (divine beings like the monkey king), Red Beard (vicious), Black Beard (evil schemers), Black (female demons), Special (all those not easily categorized: bird-style, man- lion and other specialties), Masked.

(12) For treatments of ritual dance-drama, see Wayne Ashley and Regina Holloman, 'Teyyam', 131-151 and Phillip B. Zarrilli, 'Introduction to the Ritual Traditions', 121-129 in Indian Theatre 1990; K.K.N.Krup, 'Teyyam', 84-99, and Mrinalini Sarabhai, 'Mutiyettu', 54-61, in Performing Arts of Kerala 1994.

(13) Diane Daugherty and Marlene Pitkow, 'Who Wears the Skirts in Kathakali?' The Drama Review (Summer 1991) 144.

(14) John J. Winkler, 'The Ephebes' Song: Tragoidia and Polis' in Nothing to Do with Dionysos? Athenian Drama in Its Social Context, ed. John J. Winkler and Froma I. Zeitlin (Princeton 1990).

(15) Winkler 44.

(16) Winkler discusses this vase (Antikenmuseum Basel, Inv. BS 415) at length, 52-55.

(17) Winkler 50-51.

(18) Khamaileon, frag. 42 (ed. Fritz Wehrli = Athenaios Deipnosophists 14.268e-f), quoted in Winkler 51.

(19) Winkler 54-55, quoting Athenaios, 630d and 631b-c (trans. Andrew Barker, Greek Musical Writings, [Cambridge, England 1984] I 289-91.

(20) Froma I. Zeitlin, 'Playing the Other' in Nothing to Do with Dionysos? 1990, 63-97.

(21) Most scholars of Sanskrit drama do not believe that such influence has been proven. See A. Barriedale Keith, The Sanskrit Drama (Oxford 1924) 57-68 who argues for Greek influence on Sanskrit drama; his conclusions are not accepted by Farley P. Richmond, 'Origins of Sanskrit Theatre', 30, in Indian Theatre 1990, even though he notes that The Little Clay Cart has a 'striking resemblence to the Greek New Comedy.' I find many features of new comedy in Kalidasa's Sanskrit dramas as well: the use of a prologue, the hero's comic sidekick who exhibits the character of a parasite, the stock characters, the use of tokens for crucial identifications and recognition scenes, the ultimate happiness of the hero and heroine.

(22) Women in Greek Tragedy (Oxford 1992).

(23) 'Playing the Other', 85.

(24) In the Mahabharata, Dussasana wins Draupadi in a dice game. Despite the fact that Draupadi is menstruating and should not be in public, Dussasana drags her by her hair into the assembly hall and begins to undress her-- but miraculously her single garment (worn at the time of menstruation) keeps reappearing. Bhima vows, in horror at this humiliation of a virtuous woman, 'May I forfeit my journey to all my ancestors, ...if I not tear open in battle the chest of this misbegotten fiend...and drink his blood.' (translated by J.A.B. van Buitenen [Chicago 1975) 2(27)61.45-47. Draupadi will leave her hair dishelveled and loose until she is avenged by Bhima. In cult ritual, Draupadi festivals, which last for several months, reenact many events of Draupadi's life, including the dice match and disrobing as well as the avenging which concludes with her arranging and tying her hair. See Afl Hiltebeitel, The Cult of Draupadi, 2 volumes (Chicago 1991) for a fascinating and thorough treatment of this cult.

(25) 'Clytemnestra's Breast and the Evil Eye' in Women's Power, Man's Game: Essays on Classical Antiquity in Honor of Joy King (Chicago 1993) 129-148.

Catherine Freis
Millsaps College
E-mail: freiscr@okra.millsaps.edu

(Catherine Freis is Professor of Classical Studies and Director of the Core Curriculum at Millsaps College, Jackson, Mississippi.)