Shantha Ratii about Kathakali


Characters determine the colours of the make-up. Noble male characters, virtuous kings, are predominantly green. Characters of high birth with evil streak, such as the demon king Ravana, have green make-up with red marks on the cheeks. Excessively evil characters like Dushasna, have predominantly red make-up and a flowing red beard, while women and ascetics have lustrous, yellowish faces and so on. The elaborate make up, costumes and the time consumed for all this then transforms the artist into the character. With no dialogues, no stage props but with gestures, facial expressions, movements and footwork the dancers skilfully emote the various moods and emotions to the accompaniment of drums and vocalists. Thus bringing alive the awe inspiring dance form of Kathakali.

Kathakali, from the state of Kerala, evolving in the 16th century owes it origin to the age old dance form of Koodiattam and later on adapting from dance forms of Krishnattam and Ramanattam.

“Besides the splendour and magnificence of the form, this dance form gives an artiste an unprecedented degree of freedom to express in accordance with his own knowledge and mastery of the art through his "Manodharma". He is then able to give his art his own colouring.” Shantha Ratii

Shantha Ratii Misra, a graduate in arts, born and brought up in Singapore, took to dancing at the young age of five. She was trained in Bharathanatyam in Singapore by KP Shantha Bhaskar and Neila Satyalingam. Later she took interest in learning Kuchupudi. She has trained under Padmabhushan Kalanidhi Narayanan, Padmabhushan Raja Radha Reddy, Padmabhushan Vempati Chinna Satyam and others. Her interest in Kathakali also took shape at a young age.

“I was fascinated with Chinese opera and used to watch it a lot on TV. When my father saw that he asked me if I would like to learn a similar form from Kerala called Kathakali. I was totally willing and excited,” says Shantha.

Shantha has also scripted and directed TV documentaries pertaining to art and has made a film And Miles to Flow, dealing with Asian Dance Theatres. This has been showcased in International Film Festivals.

Shantha who has been in the dance field for the last four decades has performed in various festivals in India and abroad. She has won accolades like the Cultural Gold Medallion in Singapore in 1990 for her contribution as an Ambassador of Indian Culture, the title of Kala Shiromani from Sahyog Foundation in 2002 among others.

Pic: Shantha Ratii giving a Demonstration

Chatting with Shantha revealed….

From whom did you learn Kathakali?

Learned from Oyur Kochu Govinda Pillai Ashaan first in Singapore then in Kerala where I stayed at his home to learn.

And what attracts you to Kathakali?

It is the sheer magic of this form; its spirituality, energy, discipline, exaggeration and larger than life quality.

You have learnt three dance forms Bharathanatyam, Kathakali, Kuchupudi what are the underlying similarities among them.

All three forms tell stories from mythology, Puranas or other literary works using the prescribed tools of Abhinaya (expressions), Mudras (gestures), Sahitya (literature), music and appropriate costuming.

What got you interested in film making?

I was always fascinated by the power and reach of the craft as a medium but took it on because not many people wanted to use it the way I thought it could be used, example celebrating the similarities of Asian Dance Theatres. People thought it was too niche a subject and would not have much viewership. I thought as a trained artiste, I was rightly poised to make these films.

And Miles to Flow, can you tell us more about this movie you have made.

Having been trained in Kathakali, also fascinated with Chinese Opera and Noh and Kabuki theatres of Japan, I realised there has not been much research or writing in print, film or electronic media on the subject. I discussed it with a few film makers to interest them in the subject but there were no takers.  So I jumped in. Went in search of funds but again nobody was interested in the subject. So I produced it besides scripting and directing it.

What similarities could you draw between Kathakali, Japanese Noh and Kabuki and Chinese Opera?

Similarities seen : these Asian Dance-theatres  are  male-domains, the kinship in spirit shared by these forms, stylised make-up and exaggerated acting, the female impersonation, the rigorous training, the master-disciple relationship (guru-shishya parampara), play-houses (koothambalam) etc. My movie And Miles to Flow deals with that.

Kathakali requires a strict regimen with knowledge of martial arts is that true for the other theatre forms of Japanese and Chinese Opera?

Yes, the better trained the artiste, the better his handling of his roles.

About your Kathakali performances, what roles did you take?

Repeated roles as Krishna, Arjuna, Balarama, Dakshan, Doodan, Damyanti, Panchali.

What are the TV documentaries you have done?

Researched, scripted and produced the following for TV the following: Hamsanaama series of Indian miniature paintings; Photography works of the renowned Raghubir Sing; Asian Immigrants’ Problems in the tri-state area of New York; Asian Children’s Outreach Programme  in New York and Malavika Sarukkai and her Art.

What is your production ‘Writings on the wall’ about?

Conceptualized, choreographed, scripted and directed a dance and theatre production; ‘Writings on the Wall’ using Chinese and Indian calligraphy and dance techniques blended with modern dance, premiered with a Singapore dance company. In this production I developed the Devnagiri script into a pictorial form and juxtaposed it with Chinese calligraphy in an ode to nature.

What is your next venture?

A project on the environment….it is about my emotional and visceral response to the world as it is today… its steady contamination and degradation…it will be a dance and theatre production where I will allow my body to express in all the languages of movement precipitated in it over the years of training in Bharatanatyam, Kathakali, Kuchipudi and Kalaripayattu and my exposure to numerous performing arts and theatres of the world.

Shantha Ratii gave a demonstration about Kathakali with excerpts from her film And Miles to Flow at the library@esplanade on the 16th of November, as part of Kalaa Utsavam, Festival of Arts 2013.