Book release | “Mudra the language of Kutiyattam, Kathakali and Mohiniyattam” – Natanakairali

Ludwig Pesch shares some thoughts during the book presentation for Mudra the language of Kutiyattam, Kathakali and Mohiniyattam by G. Venu on 16 April 2023. The views expressed are entirely those of the speaker.

Published by Natanakairali, Irinjalakuda (Kerala, India) | Worldcat.org title descriptions and library collections >>
1st ed. March 2023 (Rs. 3000)
Inquiries: abhinayakairali@gmail.com
T: ‭+91 98464 52933‬

Published by Natanakairali, Irinjalakuda (Kerala, India)
1st ed. March 2023 (Rs. 3000)
Inquiries: abhinayakairali@gmail.com
T: ‭+91 98464 52933‬

A compilation covering the contributions by all speakers (duration 2:11:42) is found here: https://youtu.be/gIDgpX47u1s >>

Transcript

Already at first glance its sheer scope is impressive: 1341 hand gestures rendered in minute detail. As “non-specialist” I feel free to explore it from various angles, some interrelated in surprising ways. Much looks familiar for someone like me having seen several of the productions it discusses. To a degree this also applies to the teaching methods even if in need of being adjusted to the talents of individual learners. 

These factors sensitize us to universal principles that connect the arts beyond language, creed, or social status. As for the challenges involved, let me refer to a publication that addressed my own doubts as a beginning student of Carnatic music in Chennai: in Beyond Culture, anthropologist E.T. Hall describes how and why he “developed a cultural model that emphasised the importance of nonverbal signals and modes of awareness over explicit messages. These insights proved invaluable in studying how members of different cultures interact and how they often fail to understand one other.”1

What struck me then was an observation that seems self-evident only in hindsight:

“In a sense … man’s relationship to all the art forms is much more intimate than is commonly supposed; man is art and vice versa. There is no way the two can be separated. The whole notion that the two are separate is […] probably an aberration of Western culture.”2

Hand gestures would naturally have been the first choice for overcoming this separation from time immemorial. 

Venu G has been a pioneer in this regard, as witnessed by many (including myself) during intercultural symposia and a research project on Kerala’s cultural practices, widening our respective horizons in unforeseen ways. This would have been impossible had he sacrificed his freedom as independent researcher and practitioner, ever since he and Mohiniyattam expert Nirmala Paniker founded Natanakairali at Irinjalakuda, then still a semi-rural environment. 

While reading this new book it dawned on me that their collaborative efforts may be compared with an ancient custom locally known as kāvu (“sacred grove”)3. Formerly widespread, it provides multiple blessings including that of a biotope

All over the world similar places are now endangered due to urban sprawl even as scientists have demonstrated how indispensable they are from the point of view of biodiversity –  safeguarding water supplies and providing clean air in harmony with local conditions. In other words, such places ensure food security and the possibility to develop new, often lifesaving medicines.4

As for the cultural equivalent of a kāvu which I now associate with Natanakairali, we see references to the natural world as part of new productions, research and documentation projects; and also in the daily practice as mentors for those who (like myself) have marvelled at the infinite possibilities of exploring our relationship with forces beyond our control, namely by artistic means. No doubt this is food for thought, an unmeasurable but real contribution to social development in times of ever increasing uniformity. 

Without development and cultural participation entire communities become alienated from one another, leaving rural communities behind while prompting their youth to leave in search of new opportunities. 

Fortunately these trends are being noticed by scientific minds and educationists calling for new priorities; so also the United Nations as part of its “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” programme. Such heritage needs to be fostered within and beyond the communities to whom credit is due, an approach long advocated by Venu G. As evident from his new book, a “born researcher” gladly acknowledges exponents for their part in a precious heritage in need of being passed forward. 

If this is a cause for celebration, it is because here we become aware of two realms that flourish in close proximity; and this not just as “resources” as they cannot be gauged in terms of monetary value or prestige alone. 

We owe this new awareness to a wealth of details and their systematic presentation: several specialized branches of the arts are mutually connected, marvelling at their diversity from multiple perspectives like ecology, psychology, history or other disciplines; and as a result, we realize that an art – any art – needs to be rediscovered, protected and redeveloped by each new generation. 

Nobody to my knowledge has expressed this more succinctly than Rabindranath Tagore: 

“A most important truth, which we are apt to forget, is that a teacher can never truly teach unless he is still learning himself. A lamp can never light another lamp unless it continues to burn its own flame.”5

Yet going by a letter to his Dutch translator – the writer and psychiatrist Frederik van Eeden – Tagore was weary of vanity: 

The superconscious self of mine which has its expression in beauty is beyond my control. […] The body of the lamp is dark, it has no expression, only its flame has the language.”6

As evident from Venu G’s writings, lectures and personal communications, an artistic education is not merely a question of authority, success or entitlement but one of sensitivity to social development and dignity that must not be taken for granted. 

His new work also demonstrates the scope for reaffirming such values and – equally important – provides a context that emboldens readers to seize every opportunity to convey a sense of purpose through their chosen art.

To illustrate my personal interpretation on these lines, let me point out a few mudras rendered in notation as found in this book.

The Glossary is equally helpful as it includes brief synopses and information about the characters figuring in some of the plays covered; this in addition to glimpses of the situations or dilemmas they face within a given scene – details local audiences would have been familiar with not so long ago.     

There is nothing vague or mysterious about the language of gesture when applied to the function of specific subsets of mudras; now shown in a handsome work of reference wherein each gesture conveys moods, actions and even memories; some relating to daily life (though in kutiyattam as if mirrored rather than projected). 

This differentiation resonates with a rhetorical question posed by Marcel Marceau, known as the world’s “Grand master of mime”: 

Do not the most moving moments of our lives find us without words?7

In this sense, Kerala’s “shared vocabulary” is more than suited to engage in the intercultural dialogue to which Venu G has contributed consistently for half a century: 

doing justice to “the most moving moments of our lives” requires universal (mundane) just as stylized (culture-specific) vocabularies effortlessly travelling between the present, the past and possible futures that depend on choices made as part of a given story. 

While contributing to Festivals of India held all over the world Venu G discovered: 

Like spoken language, Kathakali gestures offer a complete vocabulary for communication. It is very often possible to express our thoughts and emotions more forcefully with mudras than through words.” ((Mudra the language of Kutiyattam, Kathakali and Mohiniyattam, p. 10))

With Abhinjana Sakuntala, his critically acclaimed Kutiyattam adaptation, Venu G could test this premise in India and other countries. The tension between urban civilization and communities devoted to alternative lifestyles may be viewed as a theme that connects our time with the ancient world inhabited by Kalidasa. And, as convincingly put forward by Professor Romila Thapar, the inherent tensions from which the famous poet derived inspiration, have resulted in a tapestry of cultural relations that has inspired artists from antiquity:

“In writing this play Kalidasa selected a theme from the epic, but the sub-themes may well have come from folk literature. […] Elaborating on the origin myth of the Bharatas constituted a deliberate turning to the past, possibly with the unstated thought of drawing some parallels with the present“.8

Viewing Venu G’s creative and scholarly work from this angle, and taking note of the rich store of experiences on which it is built, makes me confident that it will continue to facilitate opportunities for a dialogue on eye-level wherever needed; within and beyond India as envisaged by Tagore who anticipated the modern idea of “resilience”.

Educationist Maria Montessori, who spent more than seven years in India during and after World War 2, pondered and acknowledged the insights she gained from young children and their parents. These may well be the quintessence of all transformative experiences as part of lifelong learning. So I trust that her belief in the future of humankind was not misplaced:

Only the collaboration between the children and the adults will be able to solve the problems of our time.”9

*

Much of the media contents included in the present video clip were created for educational purposes, partly in the course of an interdisciplinary research project titled “Sam, Reflection, Gathering Together!” hosted by Natanakairali in collaboration with the Bern University of the Arts. Music, dance and drama lecture-demonstrations and performances were presented by many artists and students of Natanakairali and Natanakaisiki as well as visiting artists during the “Sam” workshop held in Kerala in 2006. The name of this research project points to a common denominator in the otherwise differentiated teaching, interpretation and performance practices of South India’s music, dance and drama traditions. As for the events during which many of the photographs and audio recording were created, see “Sam, Reflection, Gathering Together!” https://sam.mimemo.net >>

Notes & references
  1. New York Times (8 May 2009)
    <<www.nytimes.com/2009/08/05/science/05hall.html>>[]
  2. E.T. Hall, Beyond Culture, New York, 1977, p. 80
    <https://worldcat.org/en/title/318322952>[]
  3. “Despite their decline, they still serve the purpose of reminiscing the past where people worshiped nature together with their deities, conserving biodiversity along with the culture. They exist even today, amidst human settlements and urban areas and are rich in biodiversity that has been protected by local people for their religious and cultural beliefs. The groves have different deities and varied legends associated with them.” – Haritha John in “Sacred groves of north Kerala: The last refuge for biodiversity amongst urbanisation”, Mongabay, 29 January 2019
    <https://india.mongabay.com/2019/01/sacred-groves-of-north-kerala-the-last-refuge-for-biodiversity-amongst-urbanisation/>[]
  4. “Though Harsh Berger used the term Ethnobotany only in 1895 this was the practising knowledge of the tribals and aborigines from time immemorial. Traditionally transmitted knowledge about plants, their medicinal and other uses and also their cultural significance are the three levels of ethnobotany. Now this branch has grown to the level of collecting and codifying the knowledge traditionally transmitted through centuries by the tribals. Ethnobotany tries to study the relation between human beings and nature. Ethnic people are knowledgeable and their world view about the sustainable life practices is now studied in modern context. […] The granaries of the knowledge in the memories of the indigenous people, in folk forms, should have patent rights for which people all over the world are fighting.” – C.R. Rajagopalan in “Indigenous knowledge – The CFS Experience”, Summer rain: Harvesting the Indigenous Knowledge of Kerala, Thrissur: Centre for IK/Folklore Studies, 2004, p. 12
    <https://worldcat.org/en/title/255522477>[]
  5. Santiniketan, Santiniketan, 1961, p. 28[]
  6. 9 August 1913 as quoted in “Tagore in The Netherlands” by Liesbeth Meyer
    <<https://www.parabaas.com/rabindranath/articles/pMeyer.html>>[]
  7. CBC, 23 September 2007
    <https://www.cbc.ca/news/entertainment/grand-master-of-mime-marcel-marceau-dies-1.644639>[]
  8. Romila Thapar, Sakuntala, New Delhi, 1999, p. 45[]
  9. Maria Montessori from Madras on 11 November 1939, “Report on the First Indian Training Course in Education” quoted in Maria Montessori Writes to her Grandchildren: Letters from India, 1939-1946 , Amsterdam, 2020, p. 38
    <https://worldcat.org/en/title/1273931392>[]