When the women play the Pandavas and Kauravas
An all-women troupe will perform episodes from the Mahabharata in a Kathakali routine, usually known to the be the turf of male artistes
Late December, a Kathakali Mahotsavam with a difference will be held in parts of the city's suburbs. The captivating dance form, traditionally known to be the dominion of male artistes, get a change this time around. The upcoming mega-celebration is by Tripunithura Vanitha Kathakali Sangham, an all-women's group, set up in 1975 by pioneering artistes in Cochin. This troupe, which started with 10 members and today has 50, will be coming all the way from Kerala.
It was Thane-based artiste Thara Varma's initiative to organise this event. She is the only Kathakali dancer in Mumbai and is a member of this troupe. "We celebrate the golden anniversary of our group this year. We were conferred the Karna Sapatham Award, instituted by the Mali Foundation. Hence, we have decided to perform a piece called the Karna Sapatham to commemorate 50 years as this story was written by the late [journalist and Kathakali dramatist] Sri Mali Madhavan Nair," says Thara, who runs Stage India Academy in Thane.
Kathakali dancer and festival organiser Thara Varma gears up for a performance
Thara Varma was born into the Poonjar Royal Family from Kottayam, Kerala. "Kathakali was an indulgence of the royalty in earlier times," says the 55-year-old. "My father was a patron of the arts and I was exposed to Kathakali since I was a child. I began learning this dance form from the age of four. When I was eight years old, my father appointed a guru from Cochin who would come home on weekends," she says.
Kathakali involves rigorous training which involves practising the mudras (hand gestures), stretching exercises and eye exercises. "Mudras are an important feature of this dance form, and we have nine expressions, which involve rigorous physical movement. The make-up is an elaborate process that takes about four hours. Earlier, make-up was done with organic colours. We had a seed from local flowers, which we would crush and it would make our eyes red for certain roles. But now with changing times, the make-up too has changed," says Thara.
What's changing also is that this is a rare performance where everyone participating in it, even the musicians, are women. Which is not to say that in traditional forms of the dance, women do not participate. Female artistes play the roles of both female and male characters (Thara has played Rowdra Bheema, for instance), but the numbers are fewer than men.The Tripunithura group received the President's Nari Shakti Award last year which is the highest civilian honour for women instituted by the Government of India and has had more than 1,800 performances till date in India and all over the world. "I have been with this group for 42 years now. In Kerala, during my student days, we used to perform one story in three hours and, during my college days, it used to be a full night's programme spread over a week. Most of the women who will be performing in Mumbai are above 40, and one of our musicians is almost 65," she tells us. Some of the performing artistes besides Thara are Geetha Varma, N Geetha and Priya Sudeep. It is a hectic time during winter for Kathakali artistes as there are several temple festivals that promote Kathakali in Mumbai, but that's no stopping Thara or the troupe.
When: December 29-31
Where: Ayyappa Temple, Vartak Nagar, Thane (7 pm); Ayyappa Temple, Hari Om Nagar, Powai (7 pm); Model English School, Andurangvadi, Dombivili (6 pm)
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