One of my earliest memories, I have of Kathakali is that when I was about 4 or 5 years old. I remember I had to be coerced away from a Kathakali performance in my native place- because I was running a temperature. My grandfather took me away and I remember falling into a rather restless slumber with the faint sounds of the Maddalam and the Chenda in the background from the nearby temple.
We used to visit Kerala once in two years during our summer holidays. My grandparents’ home was very near a Kathakali institution. My brother and I would daily visit this Gurukula to watch the cholliyattom- the training sessions. . The senior students or the Asans/Gurus used to explain to us the stories. We were familiar with the Mythological stories even otherwise thanks to my grandmother and from various books. Our entire family was Kathakali lovers and often there would be discussions about various performances, artistes, the nuances, the technical finesse of the art form among the elders at home, which would fall in our ears. . I must add that there used to be amusing anecdotes about drunken actors, enraged artistes who would convert the dais into a sort of arena to vent frustrations, how senior actors would rag junior artistes so on and so forth.
That we used to absorb these snippets we never realized then, but today, I know my brother and imbibed the love for this art form without us being aware of it. Kathakali just seeped through our senses, permeated our mind and saturated our being. Even today, the sound of the Maddalam and the Chenda, the anticipation as we sit on the bare ground in front of the dais at the Viswambhara temple in Kottakkal, the sight of the Kireedom (headgear) from behind the extended Thiraseela (Curtain) gives me gooseflesh.
In Kerala, Kathakali performances are usually held during the annual festivals in the local temples- mostly during the months of April- May. It is an all night performance with a repertoire of about 2-3 stories in a single night. The audience usually sit on mats on the bare ground. It becomes an effort sometimes to stay awake through out the night and nodding heads are a common sight. The early dawn stories are usually very dramatic, comic ones with sometimes lots of tomfoolery thrown in (Duryodhana Vadham, Kiraatham) , and the audience wakes up. The characters with their huge costumes come down among the audience and there is lots of excitement especially among the kids- This early morning scene, when the dawn is still dusky- and larger than life beings mingle with the mere mortals is a scene which lingers.
Nowadays, there are Kathakali clubs which conduct single stories in the evenings in some towns and cities. But the hard core Kathakali fans are not satisfied with these capsule forms of Kathakali.