Kathakali in a London school

Maruska Svasek

Kathakali in a London school

Kathakali in a London school

In November 2011, a select group of pupils from Wanstead High School sat down on the floor of one of the school’s classrooms as Kalamandalam Vijayakumar (Vijaya), a Kathakali actor of Indian origins, laid out different parts of a colourful Kathakali costume (see photograph). His English wife Kalamandalam Barbara Vijayakumar (Barbara), trained as a Kathakali  make-up artist, commented on the meaning of the different costume sections, the elaborate sacred headgear, the pieces of jewellery and the facial make-up. The latter, understood as inherently part of the costume, consists of coloured make-up made from ground rocks and coconut oil that are painted on the actor’s face using centuries old designs. Specifically cut paper shapes called chutti are skilfully attached to the face using thick rice paste. In the laid-out costume in the photograph, the make-up was represented by a simplified two-dimensional design printed in the booklet ‘Kathakali Make Up. Designs to Colour’. This booklet, produced by Barbara as teaching material, had also been previously used in various workshops. 

The London pupils were taking part in the project ‘We are what we wear’, funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, and it was one of many projects that were organised by Kala Chethena Kathakali Company over the past two and a half decades. Founded by Barbara and Vijaya in 1987, the company’s main aim is to promote Kathakali, an old theatre genre that first developed in the Hindu temples of Kerala. The company has presented workshops, demonstrations and small-scale performances in the UK and beyond. As stated by their website, its aim is to make the genre ‘accessible to as many people as possible whilst maintaining its ancient cultural heritage’.

In the context of the school, the framing of an Indian costume as an important item of ‘heritage’ that should be of concern to UK pupils raises interesting questions. How did its owners, an actor and an artist, try to convince the pupils that this was an important issue? What was the input of the school authorities? ‘We are what we wear’ focused on the material aspects of Kathakali, and thus differed from the ways in which Kathakali is normally presented, as theatre performance. The resource pack stated that ‘the costumes of Kathakali provide a window into the remarkable lives of the people of Kerala who created, and nurtured them, for over 400 years.’

The project appropriated Kathakali costumes in various ways: as a multi-layered teaching tool, as mediator of transcultural communication, as source of inspiration for a theatre production to be created by the school, and finally as part of an exhibition taking place in Redbridge Museum in October – December  2012. While an exploration of the Kathakali costumes was a central activity at Wanstead High School, the pupils also reflected on the types of clothing characteristic of different social groups in India and Britain and were asked to discuss how clothes could be used to express different identities. This theme turned the focus more generally to questions of migration, belonging and material culture, and foregrounded the notion of history and heritage. The information leaflet produced by Barbara noted that some research would be done to ‘reveal traditions, memories and aspirations [brought by] the people of Kerala when they migrated to Britain and what they had to leave behind’, and stated that young people would be ‘encouraged to appreciate that the clothes they are wearing today will one day be history’.

The pupils’ involvement in the project stretched out over a year, and the session on the day the photograph was taken was split up in three activities. First, the class was shown slides taken by Barbara of various landscapes in the southern Indian state of Kerala, and of the Kerala Kalamandalam, the prestigious Kathakali school where Barbara and Vijaya had been trained. The slideshow created a visual link between the classroom and the absent ‘homeland’ of Kathakali. Featuring Vijaya and Barbara in the formal setting of Kathakali training, it also justified the couple’s status as trained experts. The pupils were also presented with images of actors getting ready for their stage performance, and Barbara explained that dressing up and applying make-up, a process that takes several hours, transforms the actors into divine beings: Hindu gods who are the central characters in Kathakali plays. Her comments helped to frame the costume as an ‘out-of-the ordinary’ item with transformative power that deserved respect.

Actor: Padmashree Kalamandalam Gopi wearing a costume owned by Kala Chethena Kathakali Company

Actor: Padmashree Kalamandalam Gopi wearing a costume owned by Kala Chethena Kathakali Company

While Vijaya laid out the costume, Barbara handed out a leaflet that provided the names of the thirty individual parts of the Pacha costume, such as nuri (top skirt), tollputa (shoulder section), paddiarinyanam (wooden belt), valla (bangles) and nakham (nails). Barbara further explained that the headdress, called Kirikidham (meaning ‘crown’), is regarded as a particularly sacred object. Kirikidham is a generic name for the headdresses of certain characters, representing greatness. Various versions of Kirikidham are worn by the characters Pacha, Katti, Hamsa, Saghuni, and Bhadrakali. Before a performance, a crown headdress is placed on the head, the ‘god chakra’ of the actor, who is also required to sprinkle his head, the Kirikidham and his feet with water for ritual purification. Actors must also clean their feet to prevent evil from entering their bodies. Pointing at the headdress, Barbara noted that it is never placed directly on the floor, and when not used is kept in a fabric bag. It is handled with respect and worn with devotion. She also noted that the Pacha character is a divine hero who expresses a whole range of human emotions as he is faced with aspiration and failure. To bring the character more to life to the pupils, she added that communities today face similar situations, implying that familiarisation with Kathakali characters such as Pacha can offer an opportunity for self-reflective learning.

The hands-on activity that followed allowed the youngsters to physically engage with the costume, thus interweaving their own histories with the social life of the pacha costume. Barbara announced that the pupils were given the amazing opportunity to help preserve Kathakali heritage for the future, restoring some of the damaged pieces of jewellery. The objective of restoration reflected Vijaya and Barbara’s concern with the preservation of Kathakali, an aim that also fitted the funder’s objective. The repair of the costume was also supportive of one of Barbara’s roles in the company. Being a Textiles and Fashion graduate from the Winchester School of Art, she is partly responsible for the maintenance and repair of the costumes, a job that needs to be done once a year.

As the limelight in Kathakali mostly falls on the acting skills of the performers (see photograph 2), Barbara felt it was high time to highlight that the success of show was, in fact, partly dependent on activities behind the scene. Deconstructing the image of artistic performers as independent creative geniuses, she unveiled the collaborative dimension of creative production, a reminder of art sociologist Howard Becker’s notion of ‘art worlds’ as networks of interaction. Framed as such, the London pupils were given a small but important role in the social production of Kathakali.

The children were each given a wooden plank, a Stanley knife, some gold paper, and some damaged ornaments. Over the next hour, they applied gold leaf onto the bare patches of wood; the photograph shows their concentration as they completed the task. The pupils’ engagement was one in a chain of activities through time and space that linked them to others. Over the years, various people had crafted, transported, acted in, stored away, and repaired the different parts of the costume. The history had started with their initial production. Vijaya and Barbara had bought the headdress in south Kerala in 1986 as part of a set of costumes. Barbara noted that it was probably made by Ramakutti of Vellenezhi (Palakkad district), the head of the main costume-producing family in Kerala. The costumes had been in a bad state when the Kala Chethena Kathakali Company acquired them; the fabric was worn and bleached out, some of the wooden pieces were broken, and the gold was coming off. The initial restoration took about two months, and was done by crafts people in Kerala in 1987. In 1988, the costumes were transported to the UK and were used in the first UK tour Barbara arranged for Kathakali.

In India, individual promoters or groups of actors own sets of costumes that are frequently hired out for performances by other actors. The Kala Chethena Kathakali Company also own a second set of costumes that are hired out to help support young Kathakali artists in Kerala. The costumes are a monument of visual imagery but without the skills of the actor they remain static. It is therefore only when the costumes, the chutti artist and the actor come together that the costumes realise their true potential. Dressing up is not only a transformative process that turns the actors into gods; it also enabled the costumes to embody the particular epic story that is enacted.

The costumes owned by Vijaya and Barbara have been worn by actors such as Padmashree Kalamandalam Gopi, Kalamandalam Vasu Pisharothy, Kalamandalam MPS, Kalamandalam Nelliyode, and Kalamandalam Vijayakumar himself. As different actors bring particular costumes to life, the social meaning of the objects increases. The Kala Chethena Kathakali Company has performed all over the UK, from Isles of Scilly to the Highlands of Scotland. The costumes have also been incorporated into museum exhibitions, for example in the Swansea Art Gallery, the Potteries Museum in Stoke on Trent, the Hot Bath gallery in Bath, and in the Assembly Rooms in Edinburgh. As noted earlier, ‘We are what we wear’ will also put the costumes on display. While dynamic motion is central to the costumes’ impact on stage, in the context of the museum the items are recontextualised as static pieces of craft, to be appreciated for their material quality. While, during performances, the attention of audiences is captured by the elaborate design and colourful vibrancy of the outfits, they tend to concentrate on the skills of the actors, the accompanying music, and the development of the storyline, rather then on the costumes themselves. As Barbara noted, putting the items on display gives people a chance to see the costumes close up and appreciate the skill of the wood carvers, the silversmiths and the costume makers, all crafts people responsible for making the costumes.

Exhibiting the items also aims to bring Kathakali to a wider audience, including artists, textile specialists, fashion designers, wood carvers and historians. As the pupils were doing the restoration work, several teachers walked in to have a look at their progress. Kate Bush, who oversaw the whole project, was trained as a Textile and Fashion designer and was therefore particularly interested in the making of the costume. Her aim was to create a contemporary costume for the exhibition and for the school’s dance-theatre production that would be inspired by the Pacha design, but, as she said, ‘with some artistic license”. One of the art teachers came in to see the Kirikitham as he was planning to create a headdress for the costume. A dance teacher was involved in the development of a suitable choreography and she had attended a session where Vijaya had introduced some of the basic Kathakali movements to the group. During another session, Barbara focused specifically on make up and chutti, demonstrating the art as she applied a Kathakali design (for the character of katalan) on the face of one of the pupils. (see photographs 2)

A traditional Kathakali design and chutti – Katalan Chutti

A traditional Kathakali design and chutti – Katalan Chutti – Kalamandalam Barbara Vijayakumar.

She also asked the pupils to paint their friends’ faces, creating designs that reflected their own characters. They will use their experience in the creation of the final piece for their school performance, a piece that is still in the making at the time of the publication of this entry.

As a collaborative process, the various participants in ‘We are what we wear’ improvised with various artistic and performative genres; they were familiar with some, but others were new to them. Through the creative appropriation of Kathakali imagery, they explored links between India and the UK, and thought about continuities and ruptures between the past and the present. The pupils were also made aware of a ‘heritage take’ on history, ultimately a selective understanding of the past from the perspective of the present. Their responses during and after the activities seemed to suggest, however, that what they most of all enjoyed were the forms of sociality the project created for them. Sessions of learning about Kathakali were interspersed with hours of informal collaborative experimentation. They could also use their new knowledge and skills to think about their own lives, and use the sequence of sessions and workshops to give shape to the enfolding group dynamics. For those pupils who were most enthusiastic about the project, participation clearly enriched their educational experience.

The offering of an attractive educational programme that would benefit pupils and potentially attract new cohorts, had been an important goal of Wanstead High School and one of the main reasons why they had decided to incorporate ‘We are what we wear’ into their 2011-2011 programme.

Further reading


Nair, D. Appukuttan  and K. Ayyappa Paniker (eds) 1993 Kathakali. The Art of the Non-wordly. Mumbai: Marg Publications

Becker, Howard 1982 Art Worlds. Berkeley: University of California Press

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3 Responses to Kathakali in a London school

  1. Julie Blijweert says:

     Dear Sir/Madam,

    I am entering my final year at Institute Le Rosey, an International boarding school in Switzerland.

    For my International Baccalaureate Diploma, I am writing a research essay on the performance “The flower of Good fortune” .

    I am fascinated by the world of Kathakali. I understand that you have a busy schedule,

    Would it be possible to answer a question through email?

    My question for my research investigation is
    “What kind of make-up and costuming will be applied for the actor playing Bhima in the traditional Kathakali performance: ‘The flower of good fortune’.”

    With appreciation for your kind assistance

    Julie Blijweert

    • Maruska Svasek says:

      Dear Julie

      I hope the reply from Barbara was useful and that you have successfully completed your work.

      All the best

  2. Devi prasad Nair says:

    Hi..Am from Stockholm ,Sweden. actually we here Keralites searching for Kadhakali costumes for a cultural programme in May 23rd..Do you have any costumes for selling?? or renting? is it possible to ship to Sweden?? or if you know anyone or any website pls share it with me.. Thank you so much in advance..

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