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The Biological Nomenclature and the Aesthetic Transformation while performing Kathakali Streevesham by a Male

Acknowledgement - I would like to thank my Guru Sri Sadanam Balakrishnan ji for guiding me through this research work and providing me valuable information for this project. Padmashree Sunil Kothariji undoubtedly helped me in identifying the title for the research when I approached him to kindly guide me. During the course of this research he has added valuable input. I am thankful to Satabdhani Dr. R Ganesh in guiding me through the aesthetics of the research paper. Last but not the least, my another Guru, the pathfinder for this entire research Sri FACT Padmanabhan in understanding the minute technicalities and nuances of stree vesham genus of Kathakali. I am indebted to my present Guru Sri Sadanam Balakrishnanji in guiding me how to estabilish soloism in Kathakali. Various stree vesham padams are modified solo. During the research work, I have discovered various padams which has never been performed in Kathakali and have amended as a means of elaborating the streevesham genus of Kathakali. I am indebted to Kalamandalam Mohan Krishnan Poduval in subsequently guiding me through the musical aspect of Kathakali making me understand the nuances adapted in the usage of ragas for execution of female characters.

Probal Gupta in Stree Vesham – Photo Courtesy - Fotomurthy

The whole topic needs to be discussed under two broad categories:

1) Importance of Streevesham

2) Men performing the roles of women and its traditions – the biological nomenclature

Importance of Streevesham:

Embodiment of a female subject in various moods and settings is known as Streevesham(literally means clothing like a woman).

Indian Classical dance can broadly be categorized under two broad divisions – the ‘Tandava’ and the ‘Lasya’. While Shiva the cosmic dancer is the progenitor of the ‘Tandava’ aspect of dance; his consort Parvati is considered to be the instigator of ‘Lasya’. ‘Lasya’ depicts creation and hence the sovereign of ‘Lasya’ is “Devi”. She is the personifier of ‘Lasya’ and hence known as “Lasyeshwari”. The philosopher saint from Kerala Sri Adi Shankaracharya describes the divine beauty and elegance of ‘Devi’ while paying his encomium to her. She is referred as the “Nateshwari”. ‘Devi’ is also referred as the “ Lasyapriya” in “Lalitha Sahasranama” from Brahmandapurana. ‘Lasya’ is therefore, the dance performed to the accompaniment of singing and instrumental music with actions conveyed through gestures. Legend says that ‘Lasya’ was taught by Parvati to Usha – the daughter of Bana, who in turn imparted it to the Gopis of Dwarka and from the Gopis the art spread to the women of Saurashtra and later to the other parts of the country.

Both the traditions, the men performing the role of men (e.g Chakiyar Koothu in Kerala) and women performing the role of women ( e.g Nangiar Koothu in Kerala) were predominantly in vogue in the Southern parts of the country. However, the presence of Nayika has also its own importance in flourishing a drama as the characterization of a Nayaka would not flourish with out the same.

In APPAN’s 5th International conference, its chairperson Dr. Kapila Vatsayan quoted in her thought provoking speech, “ River Ganges reminds us of the female energy, the divine energy that flows within each one of us. Male and female are complimentary to each other. They interchange but never in isolation. The other is a part of you. The juxtaposition is complimentary. Your journey is from becoming to being.” So we the human beings irrespective of being a man or a woman have both the entities within ourselves. Portraying the female character by a male is thereby exposing the feminity or the female entity which is already there with in himself in a dance or a drama more aesthetically and obviously within the framework of “Natyashastra”.

In a country like India where the image of Lord Nataraja is worshipped and where the theory of the origin of cross dressing goes back to the bygone days when Vishnu donned the drag to emerge as Mohini, the boycott of the male dancer could not have continued for long. With the advent of the Bhakti Tradition in the 12th Century (of which singing and dancing were inseparable), held that all devotees were but women(Prakriti) and the deity was the only male (Purusha). Thus the ‘Sakhi Bhava’ came into picture when the male devotees including Sri Chaitanya Mahaprabhu who used to consider themselves as the devotees to the Supreme Purusha – Lord Krishna.

Probal Gupta with out streevesham costume…… Photo Courtesy – Nishan Das

Probal Gupta in streevesham … such is the nomenclature that it completely metamorphose a masculine man. Photo courtesy - Fotomurthy

Usage of a Peacock feather – the metaphor for Lord Krishna, the dancer artist ( Purusha) portrays himself as Prakriti – Sakhi Bhava ( the devotee of her Lord Sri Krishna)…

From the Koochipoodi Brahmins in the South to the Kathaks in the North, there have been families of dancers going back hundreds of years who specialized in female roles. The practice is even noticed in forms like “Sakhianat” in Gotipua, “Bhamakalapam” in Kuchipudi, Chindu Yakshagana from Andra Pradesh, Yakshagana from Karnataka, Koodiyattam and Kathakali from Kerala and various other folk forms of both North and South like Ramleela, Chaau, Terukkuttu and so on. Thus when a hairy chested Vedantam Satyanarayana Sharma or the Masculine Fact Padmanabhan spent hours in their makeup to transform themselves into a bewitching Satyabhama in Kuchipudi or an enticing ‘Lalitha’ (Damsel) as in Kathakali, they enters the imaginary spiritual zone in which they actually become at par with the character and hence is the psychological nomenclature. There is a remarkable polarization in the gender roles that has occurred recently. The United States and its allies’ response to terrorist attacks has increased the militarization and the promotion of dualistic fear based discourse. This discourse relies on common stereotypes of gender encouraging people to judge one another on the basis of their adherence to traditional gender expression. This discourse though has become rigid and pervasive, however, we need to work more towards it in all possible ways by identifying more fully with the integration and harmony that art inspires.

Men performing the roles of women and its traditions: the Biologiocal Nonemclature

The Natyashastra (Chapter 35) [ edited version by Dr. Manmohan Ghosh] mentions the role of men taking up of female roles as an ‘Imitative Impersonation’. When a man assumes the character of a woman, the impersonification is termed as ‘rupanusarini’ or in other words “Biological Nomenclature” by the best actors and play directors Like Padmabhushan Kavalam Narayana Panickker. Even during the Shakespearean era, young men were believed to take up the roles of women. Amar Simha in 6th century AD in his Amarakoshamentions the role of the men taking up of female character as “Bhrakumsa or Bhrumkumsa or Bhruukumsa”.

Copyright of Probal Gupta contd…

According to Dr. Satavdhani R Ganesh. exaggeration is the mode of expression in ‘Natyadharmi’ and hence the males portraying the roles of women need to be more exaggerated and minutely perfect in their expression. Before the males take up the roles of females, one has to understand the anesthetics of the form; for every male cannot take up the role. A round aesthetically beautiful face with medium height and preferably a good body structure would be ideal for female characterization. This will lead to a streevesham role being enacted quite appealing. Also deciphering the roles, its emotional and physical expression before performing undertake the roles of men, it is the ‘Parakaya Pravesha’ apart from the ‘paramanasha pravesha’ where the males have to undergo a complete metamorphosis to take up the roles of women. The real art is therefore here leading the artist to face lot of challenges and if presented aesthetically can surpass any other characters on stage.

Being a streevesham specialist myself and being initially trained in the purushavesham genre of Kathakali, I have understood and adapted the various modifications being taught to me by a streevesham specialist in Kerala - Guru Sri Fact Padmanabhan and presently under the legendary Guru Sri Sadanam Balakrishnanji. The Purushavesham postures and the mudras are large which however become subtle when performed in streevesham. The movements are concise and more restrained portraying the lasya aspect. The mudras are centered in and around the geometrical boundary of the torso. The distance of the feet in the Mandalasthana [ with the dancer standing with both feet apart and the outer soles of the feet touching the ground] is less and more concentrated. Heavy stamping on the ground with the feet is generally avoided unless there is a requirement. The gracefulness in the circular, semicircular and the lateral circular gestures called “ Chuzipoos” so typical and ingrained in Kathakali are emphasized and taught with much care to give an aesthetic conjure to the rasikas.

Probal Gupta taking training in Stree vesham genus of Kathakali from the stree vesham specialist Guru Sri fact Padmanabhan from Kerala ( Ernakulum, Tripunithura)

Picture showing the position of the feet. Photo courtesy - Fotomurthy

There are lots of sculptural evidences leading to establish the significance of the existence of female portrayal in the dance and the dance drama traditions in Kerala. The once departed opulence of the female (lasya) traditions in the art forms of Kerala which could not have captured in words was immortalized in stones by chroniclers. The extant sculptural records of those times depict feminine beauty as the matriarchal power, unembarrasingly without any false piety. The unabashed beauty of this glorious Lasya tradition is conveyed through several sculptural evidences found in many temples of Kerala. Some of the temples in Kerala built during the Chera period bears testimony of the female dance that was once prevelant in Kerala. The Mahadeva temple at Vaikkom has one of the rare dance sculptures, where a female dancer is seen playing the ball ‘kandukanritta’. There are lot of sculptural evidences which show that lasya oriented form was prevalent in Kerala. Even while studying and understanding the various texts and the plays performed in Kathakali, enough evidence is displayed of the female roles being performed which are of vital important; Lalitha [ Simhika in disguise of KirmeeraVadham who abducts Panchali to take revenge on the Pandavas], Sati from Dakshayagam , Poothana from Poothana Mooksham, Draupadi in Kalyana Saugandhikam, Panchali in Dooryodhana Vadham, Sairandhri [ Panchali in disguise in Keechaka Vadham], Damayanthi in Nalacharitam, Urvashi from Kalkeya Vadham and so on are some of the main protagonists on which the whole dance drama pivots. All these textual evidences conclude that the streevesham in Kathakali occupies prime importance in the dance drama tradition and without which the male characters become meaningless and lacks identity.

Photo courtesy – Nadam festival

Photo courtesy - Fotomurthy

The streevesham characters have all the four types of Abhinaya being performed with grace and delicacy

Angika - as I said earlier that special training is provided to all the streevesham specialists to bring out the ‘Anga Suddhi’ in them; so that the portrayal of Lasya is more elegant and exaggerated with subtlety. Lets us take an example of ‘Sringara’ Rasa where the male character like Bhima / Arjuna would look straight to Draupadi’s face to express his ‘Sringara’, the female character or Draupadi standing on the left side of her hero on the other hand would start the elaborate ‘sringara’ by first looking down, then to the feet, gradually to the face and then bringing the eyes down again, which has to be enacted by the man, concluding the severe training required to adapt a streevesham genre. Also the ‘raudram’ in ‘streevesham is more centered towards the facial expression rather than stamping of the feet heavily with more elaborate body movements expressing anger by the male characters.

Expression of Shringara for a female character – Photo Courtesy - Fotomurthy

Aharya – when performed by men has to be little more exaggerated than when performed by women. Hours spent in the green room while transforming a masculine face to feminity. Special attention is provided to costumes which should be designed with elegance, beautifully pleated and stitched to give an aesthetic touch to the Vesham. White saree with Kasavu border, offwhite saree or cream saree with red border, or white saree with blue border with a touch of kasavu are traditionally used; [white being the traditional colour of the people of Kerala and enhances the satvika aspect in the streevesham genre of Kathakali.

The picture demonstrates the metamorphosis from a man to a woman .... The complete transformation to a woman. Photo courtesy – Abhijith Madhukar

Vachika – Usage of the Edakkya enhances the beauty of the sopanam style of the music system of Kerala, when played with Suddha Maddalam enhances the lasya effect in the streevesham. The songs are sung tunefully concentrating on what type of female characters the singer is singing for. Various ragas which suits more for the Streevesham characters and can evolve the lasya aspect like Yadukula Kamodari, Navarasam, Saurashtram, Neelambari, Ananda Bhairavi, NathanamaKriya, Mukhari are often used.

Sopanam Music – the oldest school of Carnatic classical

The Sopanam Style of Music has originated from the various forms of music prevailing in the 17th century when there was a deluge of the devotional sentiments. During this period, the Saivate and the Vaishnavite Saints propagated and popularized the devotional sentiments through the medium of music, leading to the development of music highly devotional in nature in Southern parts of India. The emergence of the music, Tevaram, Tiruvachacum and the rhythmic chanting of Tiruvaymoli saw the emergence of the Sopanam Style of music which drew its inspiration from Sama Veda, so indigenous to the classical dance theatre Kathakali and the classical dance form Mohiniyattam.

Definition – the Etymology of the word “Sopanam”

“Sopanam” literally means the staircase which leads to the Sanctum Sanctorum. There is a tradition in most temples in Kerala to sing in praise of the deity by playing the Edakkya (popularly known as “KottiPadi Seva” – ‘kotti’ means beating and ‘padi’ means singing), while rituals are being performed in the sanctum sanctorum. To keep the sanctity and the peace of the temple, the rendition is slow and the music is performed in soft tempo and hence the other name assigned to “Sopanam” is “Bhava Sangeetam”

“Sopanam” also considered to be the oldest school of the Carnatic classical. According to Mr. Mukunda Raja, the Maharaja of Mysore, a reputed connoisseur of Indian Music opines that the Kathakali style of “Sopanam” singing was the original or the early style of the Carnatic vocal music. The slokas or the verses are few, composed in the Aryan or the Sanskrit meter and the songs in the Dravidian meter. Even though it follows the grammar of Carnatic music, it varies in its rendition. To complete one raga in Carnatic Style, it must go through the different levels of notes and must express various emotions (bhava). One of the unique feature of this style that it was in the olden days taught in the Oral tradition and hence lacks lot of historical references.

Copyright of Probal Gupta contd…

Salient Features of Sopanam

The Sixfold salient features of Sopanam rendition as devised by Shatkala Govinda Marar are :





Drutam and


The sopanam musical pattern used for stree vesham characters uses all these features though usually atidrutam is not used for stree vesham characters as it mars the languorous aspect of the lasya.

Satvika – One has to understand the textual verses and adapt the psychological changes while performing a character which has to very well reflect on the face. A streevesham actor is required to present a life like real and actual state of the character who’s role he is playing. In order to achieve this object, he should forget himself and be at par with the female character psychologically while performing. He should merge his individual trait into the character and should deem the feelings and emotions, states and sentiments of the character as his own. He is required to imitate physically and mentally the actions of the character who’s role he is playing. He should also be perfectly conscious of his duty.

Soloism in streevesham genus of Kathakali

I have always seen in most of the time there is lack of movement in the streevesham characters being enacted in Kathakali. Not only that, minimal movement to elucidate a character portrayal, reacting just to the action taken by the dominating male characters were gradually depriving the streevesham genre into oblivion. During my training in Mohiniyattam under Padmashree Bharati Shivaji, I felt that there is a wider scope for streevesham aspect of Kathakali and hence requested my present Guru Sri FACT Padmanabhan, a streevesham specialist to kindly guide me to understand the minute nuances behind the aspect, tracing through its progenitors. During the process I was exposed to Nangiar Koothu and explanation of my Guru pertaining to the movement in streevesham genre of Kathakali which was in vogue helped me to understand the beautiful aspect of Kathakali.

This understanding helped me to develop a solo repertoire for streevesham aspect of Kathakali which commences with Thodayam – the poorva rangam followed with sari ( derived from the word Chari in Natyashastra) a technical piece which elucidates the technicalities of the streevesham genre of kathakali, followed with a short padam, a Chitta Padam on Streevesham (padam describing the minute subtleties of streevesham genre of Kathakali) and concluding with Dhanasi ( usually done by a male character, however, I have adapted the same to suit a streevesham character portrayal). …

In the present days where all the forms of Classical dances are facing problems with the advent of Hollywood, Bollywood, Salsa, Jazz and so on which have become the foremost entertainment of the masses, Kathakali is no such an exception. Whereas with in Kerala, it is not much of a problem to have a full fledged Kathakali performance, outside Kerala lack of funds and non availability of trained Kathakali artist to form a group is really an issue. Kathakali, being a theatre form to preserve its tradition has become an unquestionable fear to its aficionados and its students. I as a foremost Kathakali exponent felt that along with the changes in the socio economic scenario, certain modifications need to be made for Kathakali. Short padams of 45 to 50 mins duration portraying two charachters need to be extracted and may be performed. Like wise, several solo padams from the plays need to be extracted and need to be performed. Being a stree vesham specialist, I have already established a Solo Stree Vesham repertoire under the able guidance of my Guru Sri Fact Padmanabhan. I am continuing my effort under Sri Sadanam Balakrishnanji where I am already and even in the process of researching solo stree vesham padams from various plays and presenting them to the rasikas.

Change is inevitable and dance is no exception. Modernity need not be viewed as a thing to be confronted. Many a time, certain aspects of modernity have helped regeneration. Hence the introduction of new conceptualization and innovative technique are required for a dance form to grow. However, not at the cost of tradition though. The introduction of new form should not be a concern. These are the core values that enable art forms to survive. Traditions have perfected themselves over a period of time. Considering their contextual relevance, it is better to let them be. Nevertheless, a dancer has a right to experiment and break off the boundaries to establish a new look which in turn becomes a tradition to emulate. As a prominent Kathakali artist performing both on the national as well as on the international level, I have felt that along with the traditional padams, some innovative work need to be researched to attract the rasikas who are always in need to visualize something anew. Working on topics different from the traditional genre has become an urgent requirement of the time. My innovative research work Lady Macbeth from Shakespeare’s Macbeth, Rabindranath Tagore’s “Chitrangada” to widen the streevesham repertoire, which is divergent from the traditional stories of Ramayana and Mahabharata need to be performed to show possibilities with in traditional boundaries.

My new research work Lady Macbeth from William Shakespeare’s Macbeth is attempted to widen the stree vesham genre. Photo courtesy – Daniel Seed

Pic from my research production “ Chitrangada” – Photo courtesy – Supartha Mustaphy

Copyright of Probal Gupta

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