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Mera Wala Green

When a sophisticated art form like Kathakali is cheerfully appropriated by commercials and movies

When a sophisticated art form like Kathakali is cheerfully appropriated by commercials and movies

Film: Chennai Express. Song: Kashmir main,tu Kanyakumari. Shah Rukh Khan and Deepika Padukone jig their way into a green field,surrounded by Kathakali performers of every type. There’s a brief flash of Puli Kali,the tiger folk dance of north Kerala,followed by a few seconds of leaping,lithe Kalaripayattu artists. The splendid decorated elephants of Kerala’s temple festivals line the background. I’m not sure,but there may even have been a Theyyam figure flitting across the scene — Theyyam,which is not performance as much as a wondrous spiritual channelling,has been drafted in to provide some southern razzle-dazzle.

Chennai Express is,of course,too goofy a movie to offend most people. But still,I nudged my mother,who had dozed by my side through the movie,to take in the scene. As a former practitioner and lifelong rasika,she is genuinely pained every time Kathakali is plucked out of context and commodified or used as gratuitous image — which tends to happen pretty often.

In her view,Kathakali is the sadhana of a lifetime. A performer starts as a child,his body is disciplined and made over. He refines each familiar role over the years. Even the costume and makeup process takes several hours,a time that becomes a passage to another time and place. A red cloth is first tied around the actor’s face,as the rice-paper frame is pasted on — and in those quiet,solemn hours,he is transformed into the character. The face paint is meant to signify archetypal characters,and heighten the shades of facial emotion. Green is used for heroic characters,red and black for more complicated,vigorous men like Duryodhana and Ravana,a bearded red for the really despicable ones like Dusshasana,and so on. Kathakali characters don’t speak,but the music and poetry,the language of gesture and footwork,and expression and costume make it an utterly immersive experience.

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After Kathakali broke out of traditional patronage structures in the last 50 years,it gained a wider audience in Kerala and outside. It usually works with librettos adapted from the Mahabharata and the Puranas. There have also been some interesting experiments,including The Killing of Hitler as early as the 1940s which the poet Vallathol helped create. Shakespeare has been adapted often,as has Goethe’s Faust. Of course,purists have bridled at these attempts,arguing that newness should come from within the tradition,and plays like Karnashapatham have done exactly that. There have also been wonderful avant-garde explorations,including Maya Rao’s blend of Kathakali’s physical language and Manto’s dark materials. But on the other hand,Asif Currimbhoy’s 1961 play,The Dumb Dancer,deliberately ignored the liveliness of the art,and used the Kathakali performer’s silence and “exotic” appearance to explore ideas of madness and reality.

In recent years,the Kathakali image has been picked up by advertising firms to sell all kinds of diverse things. There’s a 7UP ad,where a Kathakali figure offers a girl a soda and bursts into irrepressible bhangra. There was once an Asian Paints ad,where the heroic Paccha character falls down a building,right into a woman trilling “mera wala green!”. It has been used as background colour in Bollywood songs and beauty pageants. It was used in a Channel [V promo,as a mudra became the channel logo. It was used to sell liquid whitener for clothes,in a commercial that played on the frothy white of the dancer’s skirt. These appropriations are not about Kathakali,the many-layered,magnificent art form it is,but purely about the arresting spectacle it makes.

In one of its standout passages,Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Things captured the grandeur of the art and pity of its trivialisation. She writes about the Kathakali man: “He can fly you across whole worlds in minutes,he can stop for hours to examine a wilting leaf. Or play with a sleeping monkey’s tail. He can turn effortlessly from the carnage of war into the felicity of a woman washing her hair in a mountain stream. From the crafty ebullience of a rakshasa with a new idea into a gossipy Malayali with a scandal to spread.” In the novel,the Kathakali image is stamped on bottles of Paradise Pickles,and becomes a visual stand-in for Kerala. The Kathakali man performs an abbreviated travesty of his art for tourists,and becomes a bit of “regional flavour”.

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I don’t share my mother’s outrage at every instance of dumb appropriation. But occasionally,it’s worth thinking about what someone steeped in a certain context feels when things they sincerely value are toyed with. Recently,the US brand Victoria’s Secret created controversy by using a native American headdress,Urban Outfitters got into trouble for its line of “Navajo hipster panties”. These may seem like harmless borrowings to most of us,but it’s important to make the effort of empathy,  to imagine how they appear to someone who takes them seriously.

First published on: 18-08-2013 at 12:43:42 am
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