Kathakali with a twist

Kathakali with a twist
Biju performs as prince Sang Nila Utama in Cherita Singapura.

Formed in 2002, Bhaskar's Arts Academy's kathakali troupe is the only one of its kind outside India, performing the dance-drama form here and in other countries.

Originating from Kerala, kathakali is one of the oldest theatre forms in the world and is widely known for its characters' symbolic make-up, colourful costumes, skilful hand gestures and body movements.

Traditionally, most of the performances are based on the religious events of Mahabharata and Ramayana and sung in Malayalam.

Bhaskar's kathakali troupe will be performing Baka Vadha, an excerpt from the Mahabharata, for a one-night-only premiere on Feb 22 at the Goodman Arts Centre.

But what is unusual about them is that their performances also include adaptation of Asian legends in languages such as Mandarin, Malay and Tamil.

It was the intention of Bhaskar's founder, the late Mr K.P. Bhaskar, to steer away from traditional storylines and promote intercultural understanding among different races.

He wanted to reflect the Singapore spirit and its multiculturalism in his academy's kathakali performances so that they would be easily understood by local audiences.

Doing so was not without its challenges. When Kerala's traditional kathakali dancers heard of his plans, they objected to modifying the language of the lyrics. "But after watching the plays in foreign languages, they thought that it was a good way to promote kathakali outside India," said Mrs Santha Bhaskar, 75, the academy's artistic director.

In 2001, Mr Bhaskar brought in Kalamandalam Biju, 43, a kathakali artiste from Kerala. Two years later, Biju directed a kathakali performance, Cherita Singapura, on the legend of the founding of Singapore, in Malay.

In 2006, Biju directed Lady Spiders, which had Mandarin lyrics. The play is based on the famous Journey To The West, a Chinese mythological classic about the life of Buddhist monk Xuan Zang, who is imprisoned by demons called Lady Spiders. The monk is then saved by his assistant Sun Wukong, the Chinese Monkey God.

What was interesting about this performance is that this character shares similarities with the Hindu god Hanuman and is depicted as Hanuman in costume and make-up.

Recalling the plays in Mandarin and Malay, Biju said: "It took a lot of practice and time for the singers to understand the lyrics in foreign words."

In 2005, the troupe travelled to 17 cities in Mexico for a month where they performed Cherita Singapura. There, the Mexicans understood the play with the help of subtitles projected onto a screen.

Another aspect of traditional Kathakali that has had to be changed to suit today's audience was the duration of the performances.

A traditional kathakali performance, which depicts the battle between good and evil, lasts about three to four hours. To suit the modern-day audience, the performances are now about 1½ hours.

Said Mrs Bhaskar: "Now we shorten the storyline by only acting out the climax of the story."

However, what remains fascinating to the audience is the kathakali dancer's eye movements and preparation for the performance. They turn the whites of their eyes red by placing a "chundanga seed" from a particular type of eggplant under their lower eyelids. This is done to make their eyes look more expressive.

Said Biju: "In kalamandalam school (kathakali school), we had to put purified butter in our eyes and hold our eyes open with our thumb and index finger so that the eyes become strong to express the moods and sentiments of the character."

That to him, was one of the more difficult parts of training to become a professional kathakali dancer, he said.

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