Tapping a short bamboo stick rhythmically on a slab of black stone, C Gopalakrishnan surveys his small class of Kathakali students in Kalakshethram, a classical arts institute housed in a small first-floor apartment in Dombivli (East).
Knees bent, bodies poised forward and fingers bent in flower-like gestures, the young dancers sway elegantly to the beats, aware that they are perhaps the only students of the classical Kerala dance form in all of Mumbai and its suburbs. "Kathakali is a very difficult form of dance-drama, and few dance students sign up for it in the city today," says Gopalakrishnan, an artiste who volunteers as a Kathakali and Mohiniattam guru at Kalakshethram and teaches these arts full-time at Juhu's Nalanda Dance Research Centre.
In Kalakshethram, founded in 1984 to promote various classical arts from Kerala, only 15 of 100 students have enrolled in the seven-year Kathakali course; the remaining opted for the more popular Mohiniattam, Bharata Natyam, Carnatic vocal or violin. Nalanda, which is affiliated to Mumbai University, has had no students in the Kathakali department for at least ten years.
Despite the diminishing interest in studying Kathakali, however, city audiences are lapping up opportunities to see the dance being performed live.
In Malayali-dominated Dombivli, every performance of Kathakali and other Kerala art forms sees a packed house, says Gopalakrishnan. Between 1997 and 2008, city classical arts organisation Keli organised three Kathakali shows and received an enthusiastic response from audiences. This February, a Kathakali drama at the Kala Ghoda festival also opened to full houses. After successfully staging a short solo Kathakali recital last year, the National Centre for the Performing Arts (NCPA) will organise a longer, 2.5-hour Kathakali performance on April 27, as a part of its Mudra Dance Festival. The show will have Chennai-based Sadanam Balakrishnan and his troupe perform Keechakavadham, a dance-drama about lust and cunning based on an episode of the Mahabharata.
"Mumbai does not have a strong Kathakali culture and the dance is not easy to sit through and appreciate, but the drama had the audience at the edge of their seats," says Sanjukta Wagh, curator of dance programmes for the Kala Ghoda Arts Festival, who wanted city audiences to witness Kathakali outside of a Malayali cultural meet.
In an attempt to make the dance form accessible to uninitiated audiences, the NCPA has planned a free 'Understanding Kathakali' lecture on April 26.
Even as event organisers successfully draw enthusiasts to watch Kathakali, institutes such as Nalanda and Kalakshethram struggle to draw takers for the dance.
"Kathakali is more of a man's art, and girls today tend to take up Mohiniattam, which is more graceful," says dancer Nalanda director Kanak Rele, who believes that even in Kerala, the number of students taking up Kathakali is falling. Traditionally, Kathakali dramas were performed all through the night in temples, and required students to wake up before dawn for practicing the demanding eye exercises.
"Today, young children are not going to do that," says Rele, who was one of the dance exponents to push for the shorter, three or four-hour-long Kathakali acts that are popular today. At Dombivli's Kalakshethram, staging a formal Kathakali performance is a tedious and expensive affair, as the costumes, make-up artistes and accompanying instruments have to be brought in from Kerala.
"But promoting Kathakali was one of our main aims, and we will continue our efforts," says Gopalakrishnan.