Kabuki Roots? Introducing Indian Traditional “Kathakali Dance”

New York, N.Y. I have searched all over the world and brought a lot of different performing art groups to America and Europe, performances worthy of showing in the West. One of my most memorable tasks was to bring one of the four major Indian dances, known as the “Kathakali Dance,” to the United States on tour.

Kathakali_(group)_Dance_at_54th_Kerala_School_Kalolsavam_2014_at_Palakkad.One of my most memorable tasks was to bring one of four major Indian dances,
known as the “Kathakali Dance,” to the United States on tour. Photo: Wikipedia.

When I heard about this dance, I was told it resembled Japanese kabuki theater. I was therefore very interested. There was no way in those days to see this from New York or Tokyo so I had no choice but to go there.

I flew to India and went to Kerala State along the coast of southwest India seen. Kerala was an interesting place. It was a difficult place to go, but I highly recommend it if you are interested. Nowadays, there are many theaters where you can see kathakali, mainly in the city of Cochin. At that time, however, there weren’t so many troupes, so I selected a group from the national theater.

This kathakali dance has been performing within the temples of Hindu and has flourished especially in the 16th and 17th centuries. The dances are dedicated to God. The themis performance art, coupling dance with theater, was mainly taken from Sanskrit’s two great epics, “Ramayana” and “Mahabharata.”

The development of the Makeup and Story is just like Kabuki

When I arrived there, I was really surprised to see kathakali with my eyes. There is no Internet, and there is no CD. There is no YouTube, and there is not much media to introduce foreign cultures, so I was expecting what it would be like, but it will be full of surprises the first time I see it.

First of all, I was surprised the facial expressions and movements really feel like Kabuki’s ancestors,. I was also amazed by the fact that painting on the entire body of the whole body and the flashy makeup that draws lines on the face, which is very similar to Kabuki’s Kumatori. Only the eyes are very glaring and it is amazing to see them first. Many different expressions.  The costume was also flashy, and it was interesting to see that the finger movement was very different.

All actors are male, and even female characters are played by men, which is also same with Kabuki. Nowadays, I am told there are cases where female actors are included, but originally all actors were men. Also,as the same as Kabuki where the program is really long, connecting stories after stories, for 10 hours, 11 hours, etc. Anyway, one program will often continues all day long.

Following the main story, the side story of the tail comes out in various ways, and the story spreads more and more. The audiences also seem to be relaxed, you can have a meal and sometimes you can watch it all day as you go in and out of the venue. Such points are also like old ways of going to Kabuki theater. Tibet’s folk operas “all day” as well, so as many other folk attractions, especially in Asia.

Of course I can not do that for a long time at a show in New York, so I did a job of directing for about two hours. Before arriving here, I also asked you to give me various opinions, and I made it short so as to be about two and a half hours safely. IT HAS TO MAKE SENSE.

This performance of Katakali group after their tour of USA, became an opportunity to be known to the world

As I invited Katakari Dance to the United States, the groups often is dance will for the first time make roads outside India. I love to bring in to USA any group worthy of introductions to the West,the first time that no one has ever seen, I have always infected my passion to others but I am also very happy that I was able to spread Katakari abroad.

Now you can see a lot of these dancers on the Internet, so why not take a look, while looking for similarities with Kabuki?

Originally published as Vol. 66 in Weekly Biz, March 30, 2019; translated by Jim Luce.

See: Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura Column in Japan’s Weekly Biz



About Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura

View all posts by Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura
Dr. Kazuko Hillyer Tatsumura
Dr. Kazuko was born into a distinguished old family in Kyoto, Japan, and graduated from Toho conservatory of Music in Tokyo. In 1961 she came to U.S. as a pianist sponsored by the Boston Symphony. She studied at Boston University, New York University, and received her Ph.D. in Oriental Medicine from New York State University and the International Academy of Education in Tokyo. From 1968 to 1992, she promoted cultural exchanges from East to West and vice versa, and became a world famous impresario, producing 2,000 events each year all over the world encompassing over 140 countries. In this connection, in 1972, she went to Dharamsala to find the lost Tibetan Folk Opera, and met His Holiness the Dalai Lama, with whom she remains a lifelong friend. In 1973 and 1991 she arranged and funded personally the tours of the Folk Opera of Tibet to the West. She has received many medals and honors from different countries. Her tireless life long work in Philanthropic field is vast and well known ranging from Save the Beacon Theater, Save the Boat People, Help the Homeless, natural disasters of earthquakes and tsunamis, as well as relief to AIDS and HIV positive children in Africa. She has been a dedicated Board Member to both the J. Luce Foundation and Orphans International for years. Her work focuses on the Tibetan people; Tibetan children remain especially strong in her heart. She raised fund for the new academic building for Manjushree Orphanage in Tawang, India and supported many aspects of the school. See HuffPo pieces entitled Japanese Holistic Healer in NYC to Build School for Tibetan Orphans in India, A Japanese Dinner with Raul Castro’s Daughter, and NYC Gala in Support of Tibetan Orphans Set for January.

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