“Traditional art forms help in cultivating the culture within us.” – Kalamandalam Ravi Kumar
Traditions are the underpinning of our identity. They are the foundation to our societies. They enables people to showcase the principles of their Founding Fathers and unite as a country. That, in turn, makes it a very important element in bringing people together, in community and family, and ultimately in creating a sense of comfort and belonging within each person. This connection is really important for individuals as well as for nations. One of the most interesting things about the world we live in is how every country has its very own unique versions of traditions.
In India, one of their traditions is eye dancing. There is a school in Kerala, South India called Keral Kalamandalam where people go just to learn about this traditional Indian art and how to do it. The art of eye dancing has a name – it is called Kathakali.
The way they use their eyes is what makes the art of Kathakali unique. Although it also encompasses the entire body. It is an intricate dance style that combines choreography of body movements with theatrical gestures and very exaggerated facial features with much attention placed on incorporating dramatic eye movements.
“Kathakali is my life. I have dedicated my entire life and soul to it; And Kathakali has given me life in return.” – Kalamandalam
To become a professional Kathakali dancer requires at least 12 years of practice. Practice makes perfect! Kalamandalam Ravi Kumar, the head teacher of Keral Kalamandalam, explains that a student has to begin when they are very young to become a master of the art and skilled enough for stage performances. A dancer has to be able to constrict and move their eyes in a way that expresses a whole range of emotions so that the audience can truly feel and understand the character the dancer has embodied.
“Practice is everything. Teachers can only teach the eye movements. In order to make the eye expression real, you have to feel the character in your heart.” – Kalamandalam
When they perform, the costumes and make up they use are so extravagant that it takes them around 4 hours to get dressed up, and that’s with assistance. During the show, the performers are accompanied by a background of live vocalists singing rhythmically to match the beats of an orchestra.
Their performances tell tales from Hindu epics. In a way , a Kathakali dancer is similar to a mime. They are dancing actors that speak through a sign language of hand signs called mudras. Kathakali is known for being one of the most difficult art styles to execute on stage.
Like with everything in life, to make it real and really good, you have to go in with all your heart. This tradition is an example of that all the way. Kalamandalam gets into more details about the tradition in the following video: