The Magic of Kerala’s Animated Masks
Masks have their distinctive space in traditional art forms across Kerala, enriching the visual appeal of a range of performance spaces in the state. Of varied sizes, shapes, and looks, they tend to lend a celebratory spirit to the show — formal or otherwise.
At the outset, masks need not necessarily cover the face. Kerala has several such examples, where ‘masks’ primarily adorn the visage. The make-up is so heavy that it creates the illusion of a mask to the viewer. Such is the extent of the effectively unreal looks above the neck. That is, the face is painted in such a distinct way that the original human features become virtually non-existent if irrelevant. Such practices of make-up too are categorised as masks. Let’s refer to them as ‘animate’.
Masks are employed in the state’s art forms that are considered ‘classical’, as well as other traditional categories such as ritualistic, ethnic, or folk. Kerala’s famed Kathakali dance theatre, for instance, features some of its characters wearing masks in the conventional sense by completely covering the face. These are often allocated to minor characters, sometimes, major ones suddenly having been cut to size following an act of Puranic magic-realism. Whichever may be the case, both kinds are largely cameo in nature: a wholly-masked Kathakali character doesn’t perform for long. We’ll call such masks ‘inanimate’ as this narrative progresses.
So much for a broad introduction. Now, we will go for a round of select art forms to gather an idea of the kind of masks they employ during the presentation. We will be touring twelve of them. Before we make the stops for a closer look, here is an overview:
Green is the hue
Since Kathakali continues to hold primacy when it comes to Kerala’s masked faces in the traditional art forms, let us revisit the form. Many of this dance theatre’s characters paint their faces to give the impression of masks. The resultant distance from the original features (such as eyes, nose, lips, and cheeks) can be of several degrees.
For instance, the primarily ‘green-hued or pachcha roles would often betray the facial identity of the actor (gender-neutral). Although it’s another matter that some faces tend to dramatically gain handsomeness with the application of the paint, even if the performer is a woman. Of course ‘beauty’ is subjective, but even among the allied arts, this idea holds prominence in Kathakali. So much for the heroes —although the green colour, in several other cultures, is attributed to feelings like envy and traits like villainy.
When it comes to the antihero, called katthi in Kathakali, the mask-ish quality becomes dense. It’s still denser with other roles such as ‘red beard’ (chuvannathadi) or ‘overall black’ (kari). There are characters with semi-real looks too: females and, among men, the Brahmin or the messenger. None of these characters wears any kinds of masks.
The four-century-old Kathakali did borrow acting techniques from Koodiyattam — the world’s oldest surviving Sanskrit theatre (from the Sangam-era). But Koodiyattam has had a deeper focus on nuanced and stylised facial emotions, incapacitating any use of a mask.
But Krishnanattam dance-drama, from which Kathakali did borrow elements in more ways than one, has its decent set of masks — in both senses of the word. Krishnanattam definitely has a notable number of characters that mask their face — more so vis-à-vis Kathakali. This perhaps signifies the close link that Krishnanattam has had with performing arts conventionally categorised as folk.
The ‘folk’ arts, with or without a ritualistic gravity, feature masks aplenty. Be it the mythology-centric Padayani from the erstwhile Travancore or the Mudiyettu from south-central Kerala, facial masks are integral to most of the characters. Southern Kerala also has the rustic Kakkarassi Natakam theatre, where some characters, once again, come with make-up amounting to masks. Garudan Thookkam and Arjuna Nritham (also called Mayilpeelithookam) with their stylised ‘masks’ add to the cultural richness of south-central Kerala.
A little up the state, areas around Thrissur have a festive Onam-time art called Kummatikkali, where again masks are the highlight.
The pan-Kerala song-and-dance solo Ottanthullal, too, has the artist performing with a painted face (akin to Kathakali). The relatively loosely-defined Kurathiyattam, with its Tamil elements, also has a shrunken grandma called Muthassi coming onto the stage with a wooden mask.
Further up, the taluks of Thalappilly and Valluvanad of north-central Kerala revel in traditional subaltern communities’ arts such as Thira and Mookkanchathan. The first in these features painted faces amid an exaggerated inverted U-shaped headgear. The other goes by fully-covered masks. This belt of Kerala also features the Vandivesham and Thattinmel Koothu forms with their masks.
Up in Malabar, Theyyams define the ritualist art scape. And the facial paints and masks are the defining features of them totalling close to 400 varieties, representing local or mythological legends.
At the top of the map of Kerala, with Kasaragod as the district bordering Karnataka state, exists the pre-classical Yakshagana dance theatre. Known for its Kannada ethos, this art form too has its painted faces (along with the elaborate costume) resembling fully-covered masks.
From here, we begin the voyage by sampling the features of each of the 12 forms — one after the other.
Gaining its titular name as a Dravidian corruption of the word Daivam meaning god (Dev), Theyyam is a ritual art hailing gods, goddesses, mythological characters and regional heroes/heroines. There are 400-odd of them, each with their distinct costume and facial features.
Theyyam, which has its moorings in the northern parts of Malabar (upstate Kerala), bears both kinds of masks.
Here is an animate one:
This Theyyam, called Madayil Chamundi, goes by a thick make-up, predominantly red. The image captures the face with the glance going sharply downward, yet the eyelids are not hanging. This enhances the effect of bulged eyeballs — something that is part of ‘netrabhinaya’ or the eye exercises in some of Kerala’s ‘classical’ performing arts.
From here, we go to an image where the character wears an inanimate mask.
What you see here is the Pottan Theyyam, known for its engaging dialogues that seemingly sound idiotic but are subtly nuggets of great wisdom. This character remains fully masked while dancing and has an integral association with fire. Further, we go to Bali Theyyam.
Here the headgear tends to enter the Kathakali territory. (The Kuttichamaram is a red-beard evil character [Bali in the Puranas] in Kathakali that holds a close resemblance to the Bali Theyyam.)
Some Theyyam deities come with headgears that are abnormally tall. What’s more, they perform on stilts — a sight perhaps remindful of certain African tribal dances in a global context.
For instance, the Malol Gulikan Theyyam.
Not as ancient as Theyyam, this is a pre-classical art form, with a much higher degree of evolution as a theatre. Primarily prevalent in the Canara belt of present-day Karnataka, Yakshagana also has its southern-style extending up to Kasaragod — the northernmost of Kerala’s 14 districts.
Not all characters in Yakshagana wear masks (of any kind). The art has its set of characters with semi-real and realistic make-up too.
The above photograph is that of an asura in Yakshagana, interestingly, like with Bali Theyyam, the headgear bears an unmistakable resemblance with the red-beard characters in Kathakali.
Here is a painting of the two as a compare-and-contrast.
The one to the left is from Yakshagana.
Choreographically, some Yakshagana characters resort to jumping twirls (fourth minute), full of verve and forming a circle in the process.
That movement brings us to south-central Kerala, where the state has another temple-allied art that reveals inanimate masks.
This dance-drama, which UNESCO included in its Representative List of the Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity, stems from the ‘Amma Daivam’ or Mother Goddess cult. Mudiyettu, too, has its characters making similar twirling movements while revolving around a fire. But, the focus being masked, let us sample one — that of the villainous Darika.
A look at the character on the stool immediately attracts attention towards its face. The red-filled design represents the handle-bar moustache. Projected as a stylised symbolism of ultra-masculinity, this part of the make-up, again, hints at the anti-hero katthi in Kathakali.
The protagonist in Mudiyettu is Kali, who eventually kills the demon.
The Kali in Mudiyettu has its headgear bearing an uncanny resemblance with that of Purulia style of Chhau dance from Bengal.
Goddess Kali assumes centrality in another temple art of the same region. That is Bhagavati Thiyyattu, where the male actor impersonates the goddess.
The facial make-up of the Kali in Thiyyattu tends to stand somewhere between the namesake in Mudiyettu and that of the darkish Karivesham demoness in Kathakali.
For all its ferocity, the Karivesham is primarily comical. And, treading that route, let us come to a performing song-and-dance art steeped in satire.
In this three-century-old art, courtesy of the genius of witty poet Kunchan Nambiar, the face is painted in green. It is even otherwise similar to the facial sketch of the virtuous pachcha character in Kathakali.
The Ottanthullal artist sings and dances, primarily performing stories from Hindu mythology. This form has no regional limitations within Kerala and is performed across the length and breadth of the state. The Thullal, as the master form is known, has two other variants: Seethankan and Parayan
Both of these do not resort to thick make-up, and thus don’t come across as mask dances.
Kunchan Nambiar, the father figure of Thullal, did borrow a lot from certain folk arts. One of them is Padayani.
As a form, again, with elements of theatre and dance tethered to the theme around a goddess (Durga), this art has rich music accompanied with rhythmic cycles that Nambiar also borrowed into Thullal.
Like several Theyyam deities, fire is an indispensable ingredient to Padayani, which employs the areca palm-fronds and the tender leaves of coconut in a big way to deck up the huge headgears above the masks.
Known for its rich tala systems are animate-mask forms such as Arjuna Nritham and Garudanthookam portraying the ethereal bird.
This is a folk form that has one character wearing the mask, teaming with the other called Thira.
The character in fully-covered mask, which typically dances in open post-harvest paddy fields that become the venue for many a summer-time temple festival in central Kerala, is part of the state’s subaltern culture.
Like the ‘Karivesham’ in Kathakali, the Poothan is spooky yet cute. It performs, along with the Thira, visiting houses as well. The mixed vibes it sends often prompt artists to portray its face in paintings.
Now, let us shift the gear and get into Kerala arts that are classical.
Boasting of Sangam-era vintage, Koodiyattam has its Puranic characters coming mostly in animated masks, which often implies that they are males.
With due respect to the virtuous characters, Koodiyattam too has its set of antiheroes. One of them is Ravana from the Ramayana. And among the most celebrated scenes of this Lankan emperor is his lifting of the gigantic Mount Kailash, the abode of Lord Shiva.
Segmented into eight stories around Lord Krishna, this temple art is a good instance of the coexistence of animate and inanimate masks.
Below is an example, where the demon Narakasura could be seen readying for a fight with the god.
Krishnanattam is also a happy blend of facial emoting and mudra-driven dance using the body.
This four-century-old form has one of the most beautiful make-ups, making some of its characters appear exaggeratedly handsome.
Here is, for instance, a wedding scene involving Pandava prince Arjuna and Krishna’s sister Subhadra.
Not surprising, thus, that Kathakali masks least hide Navarasa abhinaya, and instead enhance the nine expressions with facial movements. .
All the same, Kathakali, as mentioned at the outset of this essay, has certain characters who come in with their faces covered in masks. An example of this can be seen in the end-scene of the Dakshayam play, where on being decapitated Sati’s father appears with a goat’s head in place of his own.
Let us wind up with a street mask.
As earlier introduced, this folk art appears in public, often amidst the daytime crowd. The occasion, typically, is the harvest festival of Onam.
Incidentally, some of its characters dance with blue masks — from some angles a bit like that of Kali’s along the streets of Kolkata.
Coming to the end, one can clearly see the importance of masks, both animate and inanimate, in art forms across Kerala. It is impossible to not be awed by the tradition that they embody. The masks are inextricable from the art forms themselves – lending an ethereal quality to the latter. The impact of these masks are magical to say the least.
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Sreevalsan Thiyyadi is a performing-arts enthusiast and journalist based in Kerala. For over a quarter-century he's been covering national and international cultural events for various media houses in Delhi and Chennai. He writes and contributes to newspapers and websites in both English and Malayalam. Sreevalsan is also an aspiring author who has penned the biography of a Chenda percussionist (2013) and is working towards more such publications.