Interview: Barbara Vijayakumar of Kala Chethena Kathakali Company


The Kala Chethena Kathakali Company founded by Kalamandalam Barbara Vijayakumar and her husband Kalamandalam Vijayakumar has been bringing the ancient South Indian dance drama Kathakali to UK audiences for 30 years. Ahead of their Brighton shows, Barbara describes her colourful journey to India and to Kathakali, and becoming the first female and non-Indian chutti make-up artist.

How and when did you first discover Kathakali?

After studying five years at Rochdale College of Art and three years at Winchester School of Art I was exploring the idea of “Living Colour” to bring my paintings alive. After experimenting with living surfaces such as the wind, trees and rivers I finally decided that people were my ideal vehicle, and colours had movement, life and a soul. I wanted the face to be the centre of the sculpture but my make-up technique was rubbish.

In 1972 I was travelling overland to Australia to find the Aborigines to ask them if I could study their abstract make up techniques to incorporate into my own abstract performance art. I hitchhiked through Europe and took local buses through Turkey, Iran and through Afghanistan I travelled on a donkey, a bike and the top of a brightly coloured lorry, through the Khyber Pass into Pakistan and finally into India. As soon as I crossed Whaga Border into India I felt as if I had come home.

I travelled to South India and in Kerala I got off a train at the wrong stop, accidently found the Kerala Kalamandalam and asked if I could study make up after seeing what I thought was Kathakali, but what I had seen actually seen was Bharathanatyam.

In 1974 I set off overland again to start my course in Chutti at the Kerala Kalamandalam. At this point I had still not seen Kathakali.

I was introduced to my ashan – the great master, Govinda Warrior Ashan and after a week of dribbling a line of moist rice paste onto an over-turned clay pot, wondering when I was going to start learning make up, I finally saw Kathakali for the first time.

It took my breath away, I knew I was involved in something very special and I had to train hard but I had no idea that 43 years later I would have co-founded the Kala Chethena Kathakali Company, presented over 2,000 full company performances, 3,500 workshops, 3,000 solo performances , 23 exhibitions and applied the make up [chutti] on most of the top Kathakali artists including Padmasree Kalamandalam Gopi.

I graduated in 1976 as the first female and non-Indian Kathakali make-up artist in the world. I am also the longest practicing chutti artist – male or female, and the first female Kathakali costumer and costume maker in the world.

What was it about the artform that attracted you?

As an artist the stunning visual impact of the costumes and make-up was an immediate attraction, the images of Kathakali were exciting, inspiring and vibrating. As the years went by the depth of the acting, the emotion, the characters and how they communicated a story in such a direct way took me into a world of storytelling that was so human. The door was open and I could not get out if I tried to. The power of Kathakali was totally absorbing and completely engaged my senses.

How would you describe Kathakali to a complete newcomer?

Kathakali is a feast for the eyes and a gateway into another world where the imagination is free to expand and unite with characters, colours, music, movement in an atmosphere that emerged from a life established centuries ago.

The stories are about how we as human beings relate to each other and the world we live in. Our dreams, aspirations, fears and failures roll into one experience of how society develops and resolves problems.

In Kathakali there is always a battle between good and evil and good always wins.

Our audience leaves Kathakali with a unique feeling and from the endless standing ovations we understand that this magnificent art form is reaching people of all ages, cultural backgrounds and abilities. From the Isles of Scilly to the Highlands of Scotland, major cities and towns, people respond to the power of Kathakali.

Can you tell us a little about the process of training in the art of chutti?

The training is hard and long, starting with eight hours a day learning how to control the flow of rice paste as it is applied to the actors faces. Once mastered all the chutti designs have to be learned off by heart. A chutti artist has to learn perfection and then speed.

As part of the training the chutti artist progresses from applying the rice paste on the bottom side of a clay pot and is allowed to do a chutti on an actor`s face for the first time– this is called an Arungatum and done only with the blessings of your ashan. All sections of Kathakali have to go through an Arungatum.

Once the course is complete it takes a lifetime to master the chutti and gain enough experience to apply the chutti for performances, I apply the chutti for all the characters on our UK Tours and in Kerala, I am often the only chutti artist applying all the make up.

Did you have a background in stage make-up or costume before this?

I trained in textiles and fashion but rejected fashion as I felt it was based on vanity, money and a rat race. I changed this for performance art and eventually theatre where I could express my Living Sculpture ideas on stage through performance. I had no experience in make up.

Forty-one years later I was invited by Warner Brothers to be a consultant to train their make-up artists to do my Kathakali make up, but they couldn`t, so they invited me to work for three months on the Peter Pan film.

As the first female chutti artist and costumer, how well were you accepted by the Kathakali community?

It took a long time to be accepted and for the first year I was on my own – at that time men and women were segregated in Kerala. By the second year I was ready to come back to England and explained to my class mates that I was lonely. They said they were only treating me with respect and didn`t realise I felt excluded. After that life was much better and we became great friends and are still friends today.

To be accepted as a professional chutti artist was another matter. I had to prove I was good enough to apply chutti on the actors faces, know all the chuttis, apply them in time and have the experience to manage the chuttis alone. To be accepted took many years and for Padmashree Kalamandalam Gopi, and all the other top artists, to allow me to do their chuttis is indeed a great honour. I am the first and only woman to apply chutti on these major actors’ faces

In Kerala to do all the chuttis single handed for a temple performance, again is a huge testimony of the respect and recognition that the actors, and the other chutti artists have.

At one Kathakali all-night festival in 2008 the other chutti artists didn`t turn up. The organizers asked if I could do the chuttis alone – I agreed to try this impossible task that would test my skills and experience to their limits. I did nine hours of chutti against the clock, I wasn`t late for any of the stories and I managed the full night single handed – something no other chutti artist has ever done before or since. After nine hours I had to be lifted up as I was so stiff I couldn`t stand up on my own.

This is a real credit to my ashan who trained me to such a high standard.

What were your aims when you founded the Kala Chethena Kathakali Company?

To bring Kathakali to the UK to share this magnificent art form with “everyone”. In 1987 I was buzzing with the dream of bringing Kathakali to Britain and together with my husband and Kathakali actor – Kalamandalam Vijayakumar, we set about designing workshops, demonstration and methods to make Kathakali as accessible as possible.

We took Kathakali to the people including remote rural areas who would otherwise never see Kathakali.Since 1987 we have brought Kathakali to over 250,000 people all over the UK.

What can audiences expect from the Brighton performances?

A warm welcome, a feast for the senses performed by highly experienced international artists from Kerala.

The story to be performed is a story of love, similar to Snow White and called Hima Sundari. Harmonic singing, powerful drumming and of course stunning costumes and make-up. The play is easy to follow and suitable for the whole family to enjoy togeter.

What kind of person will the show appeal to?

Families, people with a connection to India, the Kerala community, students of dance, drama art and music, people who enjoy world art and something different.

Young children - we noticed that parents were brining very young children and at first I wondered how they would cope with classical Theatre. They were captivated by the colour, the music, facial expressions and the extreme characters. They tapped their feet to the music, copied the hand gestures and shared their reaction to what they were experiencing with their friends and family – they were totally alive.

People who are profoundly deaf and with learning difficulties – Kathakali uses a 4,000 year old sacred sign language called Mudras and facial expressions, giving people who are deaf an advantage of enjoying visual theatre.

Is there anything else you would like to add?

Brighton has been in the past very receptive to my own abstract performance art work – Centre Ocean Stream and Kathakali so we are looking forward to bringing Kathakali back to this vibrant city full of inspiring, interesting and creative people.

When we both die all the Kathakali costumes and a set of my own costumes will go to the V&A to be part of their collection. My own work will represent 20th Century Performance art – not bad for a kid from a council estate in Rochdale - and Kathakali world theatre.

Brighton Dome presents Kathakali on 4 Oct at Hangleton Community Centre and 15 Oct at The Old Courtroom